At G20, Europeans Are Last Hope of Getting Climate Change on Global Agenda

The G8 and G20 Summits in Muskoka and Toronto could be a battle between a European contingent looking for solid commitments on climate change issues, and those hoping to water down the already minimal commitments. Unfortunately, with activists and progressive politicians having to fight just to get climate change on the Summit’s economic agenda for a few minutes after lunch on Sunday, the end result isn’t likely to create much of a ripple.

In a release from the office of the European Union on June 23, president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, issued a letter to their G20 colleagues that suggests a more pro-active approach to achieving climate goals.

It states: “We must continue to promote strong action on climate change by putting emphasis on green growth, working together towards a global and comprehensive legal agreement post-2012 building on the Copenhagen Accord, delivering on the fast start financing and acting domestically to reach the two degrees Celsius objective.”

Big talk. But the host country typically sets the tone for the G8 and G20 summits, and in Stephen Harper’s Canada, mining and tar sands oil still reign.

“The Europeans continue to be our best and greatest hope amongst industrialized countries,” said Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. Saul added that any momentum built up at the 2010 Toronto Summit will pave the way for potential major gains on climate when the 37th G8 Summit is held in France in 2011. It’s sad to think that our best chance for global climate policies lies with a summit that is more than a year away, but environmental activists are still hoping that the more climate savvy countries can help influence the discussions this weekend.

“I certainly hope they do,” said Zoe Caron, Climate Policy and Advocacy Specialist for WWF Canada. “Basically we’ve seen Barroso come forward saying climate change should be the top issue at the G8 and G20. And [French President Nicholas] Sarkozy has come out and said that.”

“That being said the host country still defines the agenda,” Caron added.

Case in point, a leaked G20 declaration obtained by Greenpeace shows a clear backward step over fuel subsidies. The document reads: “We reviewed progress made to date in identifying inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and we agree to continue working to develop voluntary, member-specific approaches for the rationalization and phase out of such measures.”

In other words, “we” won’t be requiring any commitments to phasing out fuel subsidies.

At the Pittsburgh Summit in 2009, the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies contained no such loophole-ease as “voluntary compliance” and “member-specific approaches.” In fact, the last sentence of the fuel subsidy section of the “Leaders’ Statement” from that Summit reads: “We call on all nations to adopt policies that will phase out such subsidies worldwide.”

Instead of a firm timeline to end subsidies, a move that would have built on the progress made at the Pittsburgh Summit, the leaked declaration doesn’t refer to any concrete timetable or binding agreement.

“If climate change and the Gulf oil spill are not enough to come out strongly and make specific commitments, they are clearly missing something,” said Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.

At this point, it seems only pressure from other G20 members and public outcry might affect the declaration’s wording and impact the agenda come the Sunday sessions. That said, on the same day fuel subsidies declaration was leaked, Harper did announce $400 million in fast track financing pledged under the Copenhagen Accord to help developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change caused by developed countries. Under the accord, developed countries are to provide $30 billion in fast-tracked funding for projects in developing countries that help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Canada is responsible for 4 percent of that funding. Whether Harper backs up the funding announcement with action on climate at the Summit this weekend remains to be seen.

Ron Johnson is based in Toronto, Canada, where he is an editor for Post City magazines and contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The National Post and the London Business Times. He is covering the G20 Summit (2010) in Toronto for Earth Island Journal.