Compliance on environmental issues has been inconsistent and stands to improve, but there are steps the G7 can take to achieve this
Climate change will likely become among the most significant drivers of biodiversity loss by the end of this century.
Global warming already harms species and ecosystems, and air and freshwater pollution is causing irreparable damage. The earth’s ecosystems bear the brunt of the damage, but humans’ habitats are also being destroyed, with adverse effects on lives and livelihoods, including through increasing natural disasters.
The threats facing the natural environment do not respect borders. Effective collaboration at the international level is vital. The United Kingdom has made protecting the environment a priority of its G7 presidency. The G7’s past performance provides key lessons on how Cornwall can respond effectively to the crises facing the environment.
Since 1975, the G7 dedicated an average of 3.3% of its communiqués to biodiversity, 2.1% to oceans, 0.3% to air and freshwater pollution, and 0.8% to natural disasters.
The G7’s attention to these four topics has varied. On biodiversity, the number of words rose to 1,212 (8%) in 2003, dipped to 189 (0.7%) in 2004, spiked to 1,687 words (5%) in 2009 and fell to 362 (4%) in 2010. Similarly, air and freshwater pollution peaked in 2003 with 394 words (3%), and in 2004 plunged to none.
The environmental peak came in 2018. The number of words addressing oceans was 1,916 (17%), the most words ever on the subject. The number of words on the environment fell in 2019, going from biodiversity representing 20.2% of the 2018 communiqué to 12.6% of the 2019 communiqué, but was still a significant amount of attention dedicated to the environment. The emergency virtual summit on 16 March 2020, focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, did not address the environment.
The G7 has made 386 collective, future-oriented, politically binding commitments across all four of these key environmental subjects since 1975. On biodiversity there were 168 commitments, on oceans 272, on air and freshwater pollution 18, and on natural disasters six (with some overlap).
The first environment commitment, made in 1984, recognised the need for research on limiting environmental pollution and damage. The number of commitments rose to a peak in 2018 with 92 commitments (20%). It sank to four (13%) in 2019.
Compliance with these environment commitments averaged 60%, based on the 22 of the 386 environment commitments assessed by the G7 Research Group. This 60% compliance on the environment is far below the overall 76% average on all subjects. Natural disasters achieved the highest average with 75%, followed by oceans with 73%. Air and freshwater pollution had only 59% and biodiversity 52%.
Across all four environment subjects, the 2005 and 2015 summits tied for the highest compliance at 100%. The lowest compliance was 14% for commitments at the 1996 summit.
CAUSES AND CORRECTIONS
Commonalities among commitments with high compliance suggest measures G7 leaders can take to spur higher levels.
First, environment commitments that synergistically refer to related subjects in the commitment text average 82% compliance. Synergies are absent from all the environment commitments with compliance below a 75% average.
Second, commitments with one-year timelines average 63% compliance compared with 59% for multi-year timelines, because the latter dilute the urgency of implementing action.
Third, holding ministerial meetings before and after the leaders’ summit that bring together all ministers with portfolios that include the environment – not just environment ministers – significantly increases compliance. In 2005, G7 environment ministers participated in joint pre- and post-ministerials with their energy and development colleagues, demonstrating the interconnected nature of the environment. Years with pre-summit ministerials solely for environment ministers averaged 64% compliance.
G7 performance on the environment is inconsistent, but the growing number of environmental crises is increasing global demand for action. The 2021 UK presidency should ensure high compliance on environment commitments by creating synergies, prioritising one-year timelines rather than multi-year ones, and hosting meetings before and after the summit that include ministers responsible for all aspects of the environment. The UK should leverage the Cornwall Summit and its presidency of the Glasgow climate summit to create momentum to drive further global ambitious and collective action on the environment.