The Group of 20 came into its own during the 2008 financial crisis in order to avoid a global depression. It was a turning point that made clear that big decisions could no longer be taken without the fastest growing economies.
Fast forward to now, and the leaders of the nations that account for 75 percent of global carbon emissions are again being called to arms to avert another catastrophe — a climate one. The G20 is meeting in Rome this weekend right before COP26 in Glasgow, the United Nations gathering that aims to set specific goals to wean nations off coal and other noxious substances for good.
This time around, the G20 risks falling short and a draft communiqué seen by journalists shows just how much is still up in the air. For starters, some key players aren’t showing up in person. Last year the entire summit was held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The push to consign coal to history and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century looks out of reach. There is a sense that the old establishment represented by the Group of Seven nations tried to impose itself on the likes of China, Russia and India rather than actively engage them.
The mood of mutual suspicion is hard to bridge without the kind of face-to-face contact that can clear the air. The meeting comes as countries grapple with spiraling energy costs and supply-chain shortages, challenges that are reigniting geopolitical tensions between producers and users.
Here is your guide to the complicated considerations of some of the leaders as they attend, or dial in, to the two-day summit.
Italy | Mario Draghi, The Host
It’s a bit of awkward for the man who saved the euro and likes to get things done. The reality is that, as the unelected technocratic leader of a smaller developed economy, he’s not in a position to dictate climate terms. Italy itself has yet to make a contribution to the US$100 billion fund aimed at helping poorer countries. As the former head of the European Central Bank, Draghi commands respect and is carving a larger role for himself within Europe’s circle of influence — but corralling G20 holdouts into submission might prove beyond even his abilities.
UK | Boris Johnson, The Convert
In a much-cited 2000 column in the Daily Telegraph, the now Conservative prime minister ridiculed “eco doomsters” with such gusto that more than a few sceptics raised an eyebrow when he took to the United Nations General Assembly recently with an impassioned speech about the need for humanity to face its responsibilities to the planet. Johnson is one of the few politicians who can pull off a U-turn and his unflappable optimism has been key to his political success. But his relationship with the European Union after Brexit remains difficult — with France it’s particularly antagonistic. As host of COP26 he’ll need all his powers of persuasion to force a miraculous shift.
US | Joe Biden, The Letdown
Biden will kicked off his European tour with two acts of contrition. On Friday, the devoutly Catholic president met Pope Francis amid pressure from US conservative bishops over his stance on abortion rights and Emmanuel Macron for a chat to repair an alliance bruised by his role in convincing Australia to cancel a submarine contract with Paris to instead pursue a purchase of nuclear-powered ships from the US or the UK. Biden leaves behind a stalled legislative agenda and faces the disillusionment of many allies whom he had promised “America is back.”
Germany | Angela Merkel, The Departing
It’s a passing-of-the-baton moment from the acting chancellor to her successor, finance minister Olaf Scholz, who will also be attending and whom leaders will want to approach. But as the EU’s longest-serving leader, Merkel is no ordinary lame duck. The G20 will miss someone known as a “compromise machine.” She remained neutral in the growing US-China stand-off and saw the value in staying the course as the main interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin in spite of various provocations.
France | Emmanuel Macron, The Humbled
The 43-year-old brings swagger to summits. At the G7 he hosted in 2019, Macron gave Brazil a dressing down over deforestation in the Amazon. He courted Donald Trump and swung his arm around Biden at the G7 this year in the UK, only to be stung by the submarine switch betrayal. Ties with the UK are at a low and some in Europe are uneasy about Macron’s ambitions to occupy the regional vacuum left by Merkel. The next six months will see him sucked into a re-election campaign against the far-right. The Paris climate agreement was struck in 2015, before Macron came to power. It remains the benchmark.
Canada | Justin Trudeau, The Conflicted
Trudeau recently won a third term but presides over a minority government, one that made many climate pledges yet can’t wean itself off oil. Just this month his administration invoked a 44-year-old treaty to stop the US from shutting a pipeline. Reconciling his environmental goals with the country’s fundamental reliance on fossil fuels was never easy. But this time around critics will be looking for action, or it will be hard to shake off a sense of hypocrisy.
Saudi Arabia | MBS, The Climate-Oil Strategist
The world’s largest oil exporter surprised many ahead of climate talks by pledging a net zero goal, showing that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman wants to be part of the global conversation on climate change even as he aims to keep the kingdom’s crude in the energy mix long-term. It’s the latest twist from the royal known as MBS, who has eased back into the limelight. The 2018 murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi (which he denied any role in), a crackdown on domestic political opposition and the Yemen war had strained ties with Western allies. Prince Mohammed is de facto ruler but his father, the Saudi king, could opt to lead the delegation remotely. It's unclear still if the crown prince will attend in person.
The Telling No-Shows | China and Russia
It’s hard not to interpret the absence of both Putin and Xi Jinping as a snub in the efforts to reach a new climate deal given their combined clout. Along with the US and India, China and Russia are the worst polluters.
Covid-19 has given both a reason to stay home. Russia’s just imposed the toughest restrictions for months while Xi hasn’t left China in nearly two years. In truth, domestic politics make it imperative for Xi to hang back as he seeks to consolidate power ahead of a Communist Party leadership meeting next year.
Who else is not going?
Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sending his foreign minister in lieu while South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is staying put, keeping a close eye on local elections.
Japan’s Fumio Kishida will take part virtually as the summit comes during an election where his ruling party is expected to lose seats, but hold on to power with the help of its coalition partner.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is but one goal in mind: some alone time with Biden to make his case to buy US warplanes. He'd wanted to have that conversation in Rome, but he will likely have to wait for COP26.
Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro is in a tight spot. At home, his popularity has dived amid criticism of his handling of the pandemic and an inflation spike that has eroded income. He faces critics abroad over the Amazon. He is a contradictory figure, presenting himself both as a climate mediator but also ready to pick up a fight. However, the fact he is skipping COP26 doesn’t bode well for the talks.
With midterm elections around the corner and with economic problems piling up, Alberto Fernández will use the G20 to try to get support for the complex renegotiation the country is undergoing with the International Monetary Fund. Specifically, he has been seeking other country members to back his proposal to reduce commissions paid for large IMF loans, with the nation owing the Washington-based fund more than US$40 billion. A meeting with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva may take place on the sidelines of the summit.
by Flavia Krause-Jackson, Bloomberg