Environmental commitments have waxed and waned over the years, with higher compliance coinciding with heightened global consciousness on climate issues. Brittaney Warren, director of compliance and lead researcher on climate change, G7 Research Group, says sustained action is vital to control the climate crisis at hand
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has made climate change a top priority for the G7 Biarritz Summit he will host on 24–26 August 2019. Inequality is the overarching theme of the summit, so climate inequality will be a core feature of the climate agenda. The Biarritz Summit promises to be much more successful on climate change than the G20 Osaka Summit that preceded it on 28–29 June. At Osaka, the G20 managed to maintain the ‘G19’ statement of support for the Paris Agreement, in large part due to Macron’s insistence. But beyond this, it did not meaningfully advance global climate governance. Although this sets a low bar, Macron is proving to be a climate champion, including by setting France apart as the only G7 or G20 member to refuse to sign a new trade deal unless all its members back the Paris Agreement.
A strong, committed host is one cause of the G7’s performance on climate change. However, a closer look at the G7’s 44-year experience provides key insights about other causes that could be used to drive Biarritz to better control the climate crisis now at hand.
Since 1975, the G7 has dedicated 32,706 words, or 5%, of its public communiqués to climate. Its first phase was the creation of climate change governance from 1979 to the late 1980s. Three summits referenced climate change, all with fewer than 100 words. The second phase coincided with the second wave of environmentalism and the end of the Cold War, from the late 1980s until 2004. Much more attention was given to climate change, with ebbs and flows throughout this period. There was a high of 491 words in 1990 and a low of 53 words in 2002. The third phase started in 2005 at Gleneagles, with a total of 2,667 words on climate change, and continues to today. The peak came in 2009 with 5,559 words. The low came in 2017 with 201 words – US president Donald Trump’s first summit.
Within these communiqué conclusions, the G7 made 327 climate change commitments, identified by the G7 Research Group. The first came in 1985, with none at the following three summits. It made a few commitments at each summit from 1989 to 1992, and none at the 1993 summit. For the next decade, between 1994 and 2004, it made at least a few commitments at each summit, but never more than seven. Then, in 2005, as with the conclusions, a new phase began with 21 commitments made. This rose to 55 and 42 from the 2008 and 2009 summits respectively. This high commitment-making phase did not last, however, with the 2010 Muskoka Summit making just 10 climate commitments. Since then, no discernible trend has emerged, with commitments fluctuating between 6 and 24 per summit.
However, these conclusions and the commitments that come from them only matter if they are substantial and ambitious, and if the leaders comply with them. On the latter, with the 86 assessed commitments, compliance is a modest 74% as assessed by the G7 Research Group, about the same as the G7 average across all subjects. Overall, there has been a slowly – if sporadically – rising trend. Compliance was 75% in 1985, then declined over the next four summits before beginning an upward, fluctuating trend through the 1990s until today. Six months after the 2018 summit, average compliance on climate change commitments was 69%. The highest compliance came at the 1998 summit with 100%, the 2002 summit with 95% and the 2003 summit with 94%.
These scores coincide with the major United Nations climate meetings that produced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the Rio+20 Earth Summit. There was also high compliance of 86% in 1992, when the first UN Rio Earth Summit was convened. In the lead-up to the 2009 and 2015 meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which produced the Copenhagen Accord and the Paris Agreement respectively, compliance rose from preceding years to above-average levels.
This performance suggests that G7 compliance is bolstered by a surrounding UN summit on climate change. It also suggests that referencing the core international organisation or international legal instrument on climate change may help to improve compliance. The high complying years also had the most commitments on climate change. Indeed, the top 16 complying summits averaged 85% and made 216 commitments. Compare that to the 15 bottom complying summits, which averaged 62% and 101 commitments.
Thus, in the commitments they make at Biarritz, G7 leaders should explicitly reaffirm their strong support for the UN climate regime, its climate summit in September and the COP meeting in December. They should make many climate change commitments. These commitments should be ambitious and in line with the special report on the impacts of global warming above 1.5°C published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They should pledge to mobilise more money and set near-term timelines and critical paths for implementation to reflect the urgency of the climate crisis.