What you need to know about this year's G20

This year, G20-host Germany is pushing for a consensus on climate policy, the refugee crisis and corruption. Can Merkel build enough support to sideline Trump? 

By: /
July 4, 2017
G20protest
People with giant balloons take part in protests ahead of the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Leaders from 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries meet in Hamburg this week to negotiate a response to one of humanity’s biggest challenges: financing the fight against global climate change.

With Chancellor Angela Merkel leading preparations for the summit, the German hosts have carved an agenda increasingly at odds with the Trump administration. Merkel is calling for increased global financial regulation and greater investment in Africa. The Trump administration, on the other hand, continues to promote its “America First” brand of trade protectionism, deriding international cooperation on everything from refugee policy to investment in developing economies.

After Trump announced the U.S. would be pulling out of the Paris climate agreement following May’s G7 summit, many have looked to Merkel and the European Union as the diplomatic forces most capable of rallying support for multilateral action on climate change. 

“The Paris agreement is not over, it's just starting,” said Susanne Dröge, a senior fellow in climate diplomacy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Now with the U.S. stepping out, it’s even more important to keep up the trust that many, many developing countries have in the Paris agreement.” 

The stakes are high for Merkel, who as the de-facto leader of the EU sees the Paris climate pact as a central agreement for shaping globalization. She is also looking to win a fourth term as chancellor in Germany’s September federal election.

With those considerations as the backdrop this year, here’s what else you need to know about the summit:

What is the G20?

At its core, the G20 exists to weather financial crisis, and to promote growth through global investment. Modelled after the G7, and co-founded by former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, it was first formed in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. In 2008, it was transformed into a regular summit to deal with the global financial crisis. 

Members include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, China, South Africa and the European Union. 

Why does it matter?

The G20 represents the most wealthy and powerful nations in the world. Together, these countries consume over 80 percent of the planet’s resources, hold over 80 percent of humanity’s wealth and account for over 80 percent of annual emissions.

While agreements at the G20 are not binding, the 20 countries are leaders in global finance, and therefore act as the major donors to global institutions like the World Bank, IMF and the United Nations. If commitments in the final communiqué are mobilized, they can have real knock-on effects across the globe.

How does it work?

Unlike the UN General Assembly or the World Bank, the G20 doesn’t rely on any formal resolutions based on vote shares. Much of the progress at the summit is made in informal back-room negotiations, where the most powerful countries — and the alliances they build — get their way. 

In addition to government delegations, there are several side meetings where experts from think tanks, NGOs, business groups and other, non-G20 countries are invited to meet and put forward their concerns. This year, many are focused on integrating policy options around finance, green infrastructure and the move to a carbon-free economy. These side meetings are not part of the official exchange, but act as a sounding board to bounce ideas around before the G20 leaders meet. Then, after a two-day summit, the G20 countries will lay out their commitments in a final communiqué. 

Where does Canada fit in?

Despite its success following the 2008 financial crisis, the G20 has been marred by a lack of accountability and action, especially on issues surrounding the environment and climate change. Following the 2009 Pittsburg summit, G20 leaders agreed to phase out global fossil fuel subsidies, a target several reports have found countries are falling woefully short of. And in 2014, the Australian hosts under Tony Abbott worked hard to sideline climate policy and lead an agenda focusing on jobs and growth.

This year was supposed to be different. Backed by the Paris agreement and German leadership, climate change policy was moved to the top of the agenda. But since the U.S. announced it would pull out of the climate pact, the German hosts have been faced with sidelining Donald Trump while building enough support to implement the climate pact.

Attention has quickly turned to what a new alliance might look like, with many pointing to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an alternative cross-Atlantic ally. On June 9, support from the Canadian PM was thrown into doubt when the German news magazine Der Spiegel published an account of a call between Merkel and Trudeau, in which the latter suggested deleting mention of the Paris agreement in the G20’s final communiqué. According to the report, Trudeau had switched tactics on Trump and “seemed concerned about further provoking his powerful neighbor to the south.”

As political pundits speculated whether Merkel’s crumbling alliance pointed to Germany’s relative weakness at the global level, both leaders flatly denied the magazine’s account. 

“No, I did not say that,” Trudeau told the House of Commons. 

Der Spiegel has stood by its reporting.

What can we expect going forward?

Climate change is a top priority for both Merkel and many German voters — the chancellor made her first mark in international politics by pushing through a pre-cursor to the Kyoto Protocol. But it is also a mainstay of the European agenda, a union that has gained strength with the recent election of French President Emmanuel Macron. 

“I think there's a strong sense among EU leaders that they need to take responsibility for their positioning in the world,” said Susi Dennison, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And if they don't, they're going to become a sort of geopolitical play thing between these other key powers.” 

In the age of Trump, the more Merkel stands up to other world leaders, the more German voters seem to support her. 

"The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over," she said to supporters after the G7, adding that Europeans had to take their fate into their own hands. 

“That was really well received in Germany,” said Dröge. 

But this time around, with Turkey and Russia at the table, Dröge worries that too many big egos could water down the negotiations. 

“A lot of what constitutes diplomatic relations is the appearance of how in control of a situation leaders seem to be,” she said. 

Merkel also must balance negotiating climate policy with the rest of her G20 agenda, including strengthening financial market regulations and investing in Africa to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe. 

For someone who predicates her politics on brokering stability, the chancellor and her team have been forced to confront Europe’s — and indeed the planet’s — existential crisis with a bold vision.

“I think what they're hoping to pull off is a world without the U.S.,” said Dennison.