Failure of G20 to agree strong climate change response leaves much to do at Cop26

Progress Indicator: UN chief says hopes of a major plan of action ‘unfulfilled but not buried’ after world’s wealthiest nations met

The G20, a club of the world's wealthiest and most powerful countries, who together are responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions, has the political and financial clout to set a course to avoiding catastrophic climate change impacts.

Their gathering in Rome just before Cop26 was an opportunity to provide early momentum for the UN climate summit. The outcome has undoubtedly come up short, but analysts insist this should not be interpreted as an indication that Cop26 will not deliver what is urgently required to tackle the crisis.

The G20 made significant progress, according to some observes, with a pledge to reach net-zero emissions by or around the middle of the century and take action this decade to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. However, poorer countries say the group’s promises were not accompanied by clear plans.

G20 leaders also recognised that reducing methane is one of the quickest, most feasible and most cost effective means to limit climate impacts, but they could not agree on deal to phase out coal use. This all leaves Cop26 the uphill task of setting out what strengthened ambition should look like in this decade.


UN secretary general António Guterres said the G20 outcome fell far short of delivering real leadership on the crisis, and that he left Rome “with my hopes unfulfilled… but not buried”.

British prime minister and Cop26 host Boris Johnson struck a more pessimistic tone, saying "words and promises are starting to sound, frankly, hollow".

‘Lacking ambition’

Jennifer Morgan, director of Greenpeace International, said that "if the G20 was a dress rehearsal for Cop26, then world leaders fluffed their lines". She described the communiqué issued as "weak" and "lacking both ambition and vision".

The G20 did agree limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees will require “meaningful and effective actions” and cooperation by all countries, through finance and technology sharing.

They committed to accelerate action this decade "in line with the latest scientific developments and national circumstances" and to update/enhance "where necessary" 2030 climate plans. They agreed to global net-zero emissions "by or around mid-century", with China and Russia sticking to the date of 2060.

It failed to signal the end of coal power in the face of push back from Australia, China, India and Russia. The leaders did agree to "put an end to the provision of international public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021".

G20 cooperation to deploy clean technologies instead of coal is tied into a significant commitment to mobilise international public and private finance to support sustainable energy development.

It committed to reach a balance between adaptation and mitigation finance to encourage multilateral development banks to step up efforts to align with the Paris accord and support a transition to clean energy in emerging markets and developing countries.

‘An important signal’

Alden Meyer, of the E3G think tank, said the agreement to do more in the 2020s was "an important signal" but much hard work remains on climate finance if Cop26 is to bridge the gap in ambition needed to hold the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees this century.

"Leaders must instruct their ministers and negotiators to turn this rhetoric into reality over the next two weeks if Glasgow is to truly represent a turning point," he added.

Developing countries, however, are unhappy. The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, who chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, which is representing 39 countries at risk from environmental catastrophe at Cop26, said: "From what I've seen it appears we are going to overshoot 1.5 degrees. We are very concerned about that. This is a matter of survival for us".

He blamed the influence of powerful private-sector interests for the G20’s failure to come up with better plans, which meant developed countries would also suffer the consequences of climate breakdown.

Powerful lobbies

“We are here to save the planet, not to protect profits,” he said. “There are very powerful multinational firms and lobbies … who benefit from fossil fuel subsidies.”

Former Irish president Mary Robinson, who chairs The Elders group, which advocates for human rights, declared in advance of Cop26 that "now is the moment for decisive action, not obfuscation or half measures".

The G20 outcome has too many half measures, but Cop26 can still turns things around with many of the same players having an opportunity to deliver more by converting political promises into an agreed roadmap to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the planet.