G7 Charlevoix: The G6’s missed opportunity on climate change

While Washington’s actions at this month's summit have drawn much criticism, when it comes to climate action, the real disappointment may lie with the other members of the G7, writes Maria Banda.

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June 15, 2018
Smoke rises from a coal power plant in Jaenschwalde, Germany, February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Discord, betrayal, “fits of anger” — the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, had it all. A Twitter spat on the eve of the summit over trade threatened to derail the consensus. Two days later, the leaders seemingly managed to put aside their differences and hammer out a joint communiqué (until United States President Donald Trump un-endorsed it in a tweet). But on key issues of energy and climate change, consensus was out of reach, with the G7 splintering into the G6+1 (and G5+2 on ocean plastics, when Tokyo followed Washington’s lead). 

Climate change, the greatest challenge of our time, was one of Canada’s stated priority areas for its G7 presidency. For the US, which had announced its exit from the Paris Agreement in 2017, it held little interest. Washington thus wrote its own paragraph in the final communiqué, pledging support for “all energy sources” (seen as a nod to the fossil fuel industry). The G6 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK, plus the EU — reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the Paris Agreement, decarbonization, and a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy.  

Washington’s stance on climate change has drawn much criticism. Yet the real disappointment may actually lie within the G6. 

The G6 text is a faint shadow of the G7’s earlier commitments at Ise-Shima (2016) or Elmau (2015). At Charlevoix, the G6 leaders had a real opportunity to signal greater ambition. Instead, they pledged to reach carbon neutrality “over the course of the second half of the century,” rather than by 2050 — a target widely seen as critical for meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals. They did not specify concrete measures to close the emissions gap, nor did they endorse the industry-led recommendations on climate risk and disclosure. There was also no mention of their earlier pledge to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. (The issue would have been particularly awkward for the Canadian host, which provides $3.3 billion in subsidies annually and has just bought a $4.5 billion pipeline. The International Monetary Fund put the total value of Canada’s indirect energy subsidies at US$46 billion in 2015.) 

The Trump administration did not stand in the way of greater G6 ambition. If anything, Washington’s disengagement freed the G6 from the textual acrobatics involved in finding a common G7 denominator. The sky was the limit. This is what makes the final text all the more disappointing, and shows just how much worse off everyone is without the strong US climate leadership that was on display in 2015–16.

Assessing the G7’s climate record

Climate change has been on the G7’s agenda since 1979, which begs the question of how well the G7 has done, and how far it has to go. The group’s compliance with its G7 climate commitments is mixed. But it is the actual emissions reductions that really count. Ultimately, “strong commitment” is measured by results, not words. 

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the four European G7 members have generally led the way. Between 1990 and 2015, France, Germany, Italy and the UK each reduced their emissions — and met their Kyoto targets (Figure 1). During the same period, emissions in Canada, Japan and the US rose.

But Canada stands out. While emissions in Japan and the US (excluding emissions from land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF)) rose approximately four percent between 1990 and 2015, Canada’s emissions surged by 18 percent the single largest increase in the G7 (Figure 2).  

Figure 1
Figure 2

The divergence is even more striking once we take LULUCF into account. By that measure, Canada’s emissions in 2015 were 24 percent higher than in 1990 (Figure 3). By comparison, the European G7 members cut their emissions on average by 27 percent.

Figure 3

Five G7 members made progress on reducing their per capita emissions. The US, for example, lowered its per capita emissions (including LULUCF) by 17 percent between 1990 and 2015 (Figure 4). Canada’s and Japan’s per capita emissions increased. By 2015, Canada emerged as the top emitter in the G7 in per capita terms (Figure 5). (Canada also retains that distinction among the 10 largest global emitters.)

Figure 4
Figure 5

To put this in perspective, were Canada’s population to triple to 100 million by 2100, as some pundits propose, at current per capita rates, Canada would have to find other ways to extract (much greater) emissions reductions from the rest of the economy — a financially costly and politically difficult proposition.

Obviously, historical data is not necessarily a good predictor of future trends. As we know, US progress on curbing emissions risks being reversed (at least federally). Germany and the UK are likely to miss their 2020 targets, as is Canada, despite stronger federal policies since 2016. 

But targets are nationally determined and vary considerably across the G7. The European countries set a 2030 target of reducing emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels and adopted a long-term goal of decreasing emissions by 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. 

Canada, Japan, and the US have been far less ambitious. Canada, in particular, has promised to reduce its emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (and 80 percent by 2050). Given Canada’s runaway emissions growth after 1990, it is hardly surprising that Ottawa chose 2005 as its baseline (instead of 1990, used by most of its G7 peers). In practice, Canada’s pledge may translate into emissions that are four percent higher in 2030 than in 1990. If all countries followed in Canada’s footsteps, the global temperature would rise 3°C to 4°C.   

There are many reasons for the G7’s divergent climate policies, but protecting economic welfare is not one of them. Between 1990 and 2016, all G7 countries — including those whose emissions declined — experienced real economic growth (Figure 6 & Figure 7). In other words, there has been a decoupling of emissions from economic growth. Notably, Germany and the UK beat Canada’s economic performance in terms of real GDP growth per capita: their citizens reduced their emissions and got richer.  

Figure 6
Figure 7

Looking ahead

The G7 has lent critical political support to the international climate regime for decades. Its initiative can catalyze public and private finance, shape the global agenda, and send an important signal — to citizens, investors, businesses and other states — about the future direction of travel.

But the true test of climate leadership will be the G7’s ability to close the gulf between words and deeds at home and galvanize greater global ambition, including by China, India, and the rest of the Group of Twenty. Evidence that G7 economies can thrive while emissions fall should strengthen their hand. With the US likely to stay on the margins in the coming year (though one never knows), the G6 will have to lead, starting with the G7 environment ministers’ meeting in Halifax in September.  

France, which takes the G7 mantle from Canada in 2019 and has made climate change a national priority, in particular will be looked upon to rally international support and keep l’esprit de Paris alive. There are good signs that it has both the will and the credibility to play that role.