Why the Absence of Climate Change at the G8 Summit is No Big Deal

By Thomas Legge

The G8 Summit agenda is as good a snapshot as any of the preoccupations of the global elite. Over the past few years, the summits offered opportunities for the leaders of world’s largest industrialized economies to reflect — and occasionally even to commit to new actions — on international terrorism, the global financial crisis, and other issues of the moment. So what does it mean when an important topic is dropped from the official agenda, as happened last week in Northern Ireland when climate change failed to make the cut?


Since 2005, climate change had been on the agenda of every annual G8 Summit in one form or another. The eight participating nations account for about one-third of current global emissions of greenhouse gases (but a much greater share of historical emissions), and they play a disproportionate role in setting the agenda on climate change, as they have on issues like trade, poverty reduction, and tax transparency. The attention to climate change paid by the G8 had helped elevate the issue to the top of the international agenda, and their closing communiqués helped set up consensus agreements at the United Nations climate change conferences.


Arguably, the G8’s most important contribution to climate change was in 2009, when leaders committed themselves to limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and to reducing their emissions by 80 percent by 2050. This was the first time some of these countries had ever agreed to such a target and it was an essential precursor to the Copenhagen climate talks later that year that were intended to result in a new international agreement on climate change. Despite the failure to reach agreement in Copenhagen, the 2010 G8 summit communiqué spoke of the opportunities for a “green recovery” based on low-carbon economic development, echoed by a commitment to “green growth” in 2011. In 2012, energy and climate change was the second topic on the conclusions, preceded only by the global economy.


Climate change did make an appearance in this year’s G8 communiqué, but there was nothing new, and little to contradict the idea that international attention is grossly at odds with the urgency of the problem. While the 2 degree Celsius commitment was mentioned once again, it now feels at odds with the most recent report by the International Energy Agency, which said that the world is on course to blow past that target. There is also a brief mention of the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015, which offer the best chance since Copenhagen to agree on a new international treaty to replace the nearly expired Kyoto Protocol.


Turning away from the G8, however, there are reasons to be optimistic that countries — especially the United States — may be about to reengage on this issue. President Barack Obama was not just playing to a sympathetic gallery when he pledged further action on climate change in Berlin on Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry published an op-ed on the same day placing climate change at the top of the foreign-policy agenda of the United States, and noted the agreement between President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China last week on the phasing out of a class of highly potent greenhouse gases. This agreement, which could remove the equivalent of two years’ worth of greenhouse gases between now and 2050, was a diplomatic coup that was barely noticed outside environmental circles. The White House also signalled imminent action on emissions from new and existing power stations under existing clean air rules, which would send a powerful signal to investors to favor low-carbon energy infrastructure. Through diplomacy, regulations, and other measures that bypass the political stalemate in the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration could do much to cut U.S. emissions.


The United States has always played an outsized role in international climate change diplomacy. If it were to lead a new push for an international agreement, it is difficult to imagine how the rest of the world would not follow. But it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of new U.S. legislation on climate change means that the United States cannot play such a leadership role. If the Obama administration deploys the tools at its disposal, the United States would be well-positioned to play a leading role at the Paris talks in 2015. Those actions, far more than the agendas of future G8 meetings, will be the true test of its commitment.


Thomas Legge is a senior program officer with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Climate and Energy Program, based in Brussels.