G20 performance on climate change
G20 Issue

G20 performance on climate change

Time is running out to meet the Paris Agreement’s target to limit global warming. To fulfil its promises, the G20 –  responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – needs to make radical systemic change

As a result of human activities, Earth’s life support systems are failing. An ‘all hands on deck’ approach is needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s target to limit the increase in global warming to below 2°C by 2030. This includes the G20, which accounts for about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. The G20 has governed climate change since its first summit in 2008, but its emissions have risen. How can it improve its commitments and compliance to achieve net-zero emissions in the little time that is left?


G20 leaders dedicated just 2% of their communiqué to climate change at Washington in November 2008 and 1% at London in April 2009. At Pittsburgh in September 2009 the portion rose to 10%. It fell to 7% at Toronto in June 2020, then rose again to 13% at Seoul in November 2010. The portion stayed below 10% until after the United Nations’ Paris Agreement on climate change was signed in December 2015. At the next G20 summit, in Hangzhou in 2016, the portion rose to 11% and to 15% at Hamburg in 2017. At Buenos Aires in 2018 it dipped to 6%, before rising to peak at 24% at Osaka in 2019.


From 2008 to 2019, G20 leaders made 91 climate commitments, with a slight but insignificant rise over time. Climate commitments averaged 3% of the total at each summit. None were made on climate at Washington. At London and Pittsburgh they started at 2%, rising to 5% in 2010, and staying below 5% from 2011 to 2018, with a low of 1% at Hangzhou in 2016. At Osaka in 2019 they peaked at 9%.


Among the 33 climate commitments assessed for compliance by the G20 Research Group, compliance averaged 68%, just below the G20’s all-subject compliance average of 71%. Climate compliance rose a little over time, but irregularly: London averaged 45%, Pittsburgh 93%, Toronto 71% and Seoul 53%. Cannes in 2011 averaged 69%, Los Cabos 80%, St Petersburg 42%, Brisbane 76% and Antalya 85%. After the Paris Agreement in December 2015, Hangzhou had 79%, Hamburg 68% and Buenos Aires 78%. For Osaka in 2019, interim compliance was 85%.

Causes and corrections

This compliance pattern suggests several corrections that G20 leaders can make to improve their performance. They can increase compliance by producing fewer but more ambitious climate conclusions and commitments, holding meetings of environment and climate change ministers, and crafting commitments with strong politically binding language that references the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and that stipulate timelines of six months or less.

The highest average compliance came from summits with an average of 10% of words on climate (1,120-word average), and the lowest compliance came from those with 8% of words (1,840-word average). Similarly, the highest compliance came from summits with an average 2% of commitments on climate (four commitments on average), while the lowest compliance came from those averaging 4% (three commitments on average). The ‘fewer for focus’ with greater ambition is the message here. If the G20 fully complied with its one, repeated commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, global carbon dioxide emissions could drop by 20%.

The 2019 Japan presidency held the G20’s first meeting of environment ministers (held jointly with energy ministers), which supported the high interim compliance average of 85% from the Osaka Summit.

Commitments with strong politically binding language, such as ‘we commit’, averaged 77% compliance. Commitments with less strong language, such as ‘we reiterate’, averaged only 66%.

Commitments explicitly referencing the UNFCCC averaged 85%, and those that did not averaged
only 65%.

One commitment with a multi-year timetable averaged 43% compliance. The four commitments with a timetable of six months or less averaged 85% compliance and came before key UN summits. They show high G20 compliance before UNFCCC summits and lower compliance after them.

The highest compliance came on climate commitments linked to sustainable development at 87% and to economic growth at 74%. Those on forests had 65%, the ozone layer 48% and clean energy 46%. Climate commitments that mobilised money had 60%.

Ultimately, to achieve net-zero emissions, radical systemic change is needed.