The G7’s global climate leadership

A comparison of the efficacy of the G7 and United Nations regimes indicates that the G7 has the power to succeed in global climate-change governance where the UN has failed, says Ella Kokotsis, Director of Accountability, G7 Research Group
At times, apocalyptic claims about the threat of a changing climate have put the academic and scientific communities under attack, but mounting evidence now points to a real and potentially catastrophic risk. Scientific American officially declared 2014 to be the hottest year on record, with all 10 of the hottest years having occurred since 1998. This upward trend in the world’s average temperature is what Scientific American calls a “trademark of human-influenced global warming”. Climate change is happening at a much faster rate than was previously predicted, and human-induced carbon emissions clearly have something to do with this trend.
The extent to which the United Nations can effectively govern global climate change raises some key questions. Its attempts to lead this global challenge have repeatedly failed, as the UN has consistently proved to be an ineffective forum for delivering a legally binding climate agreement with the necessary buy-in and commitment from its member states. Whether this type of agreement is even possible given the UN’s 193-member composition is highly debatable.
Cause for optimism
However, recent research on the G7/8 and G20’s governance of global climate issues has yielded some important trends and offered a source of hope. Given the G7’s leadership on climate change since its inception in 1975, it has often produced more conclusive and definitive contributions than the UN has – primarily through the summit’s visionary leadership, allowing it to take ambitious, preventive steps to control climate change before its harmful and irreversible consequences move beyond human control. At the conclusion of the first summit in 1975 at Rambouillet, France, the leaders declared: “Our common interests require that we continue to cooperate in order to reduce our dependence on imported energy through conservation and the development of alternative sources.” In 1976, now with Canada present at the table, the G7 noted the need for the rational use of energy resources. In 1977, with the European Community added, the leaders affirmed the principle of “more efficient energy use”. At the Bonn summit in 1978, the G7 stated: “In energy development, the environment and human safety of the population must be safeguarded with greatest care.” And then, in Tokyo in 1979, it took up the issue of carbon emissions directly, calling for “alternative sources of energy” that would “help prevent further pollution” caused by carbon and sulphur emissions.
The summit leaders thus acknowledged, through this voluntary consensus, the need to halt immediately, at 1979 levels, the concentration of toxic atmospheric emissions. By 1979, they were clearly demonstrating both their willingness and ability to move forward with the implicit carbon-controlling environmental principles that were embedded in the very first gathering in 1975.
Since then, the summit’s role in governing global climate change has passed through three distinct phases. During the first phase, from 1979-88, the G7 created the global governance of climate change by introducing the first, environmentally oriented climate regime, setting an immediate timetable to establish zero increases in carbon concentrations. It included all consequential carbon-polluting powers in its actions and institutions to meet this goal.
In the second phase, from 1988-2004, the G8, now with Russia added, shifted to shape and support the emerging UN regime centred in the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Kyoto Protocol, placing issues of economic development rather than the environment at the apex of its political agenda.
The third phase, from 2005 to the present, has seen the G8 – and the new G20 summit – respond to the failure of this UN approach by returning to global leadership with an expanded regime that has placed the environment first and broadened its membership to include all major carbon-producing powers, led by China and the United States. This regime has been increasingly effective, both in reducing G7/8 members’ emissions and in slowly influencing the UN to shape its post-Kyoto regime in a similar way.
The central role of the G7, the G8 and, more recently, the G20 in global climate governance stands in sharp contrast to the historic absence of any powerful global intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the control of climate change. The UN charter is noticeably silent about the existence, let alone the value, of the natural environment. Furthermore, the UN system lacks any dedicated functional organisation to deal with either energy or the environment. The global community was thus institutionally defenceless when the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 assaulted the global economy, and as trees started dying from acid rain in North America and Europe, highlighting how the effects of increased coal consumption and other hydrocarbons polluted the atmosphere and killed species. Only the G7 responded to the call as a new plurilateral international institution to meet these ecological challenges.
The UN adopted a different approach, establishing a weak United Nations Environment Programme in 1972 and separate secretariats in 1992, and periodically hosting summits on sustainable development. At its comprehensive, development-oriented Millennium Summit in New York in 2000, the UN finally recognised the existence and value of the natural environment, but still failed to take any major steps to put its new principle into effect through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) it launched there. Nor did it do so with the required ambition at its Rio+20 summit in 2012.
With these phases, the G7/8 created, retreated and returned with the new G20 to lead climate-change governance by inventing and, later, reinvigorating an effective, inclusive and equal climate-control regime that placed the environment at the top of the agenda. That regime was different from the failing, divided, inequitable UN regime that consistently placed issues of global development first on its list of international priorities.
The Paris negotiations
This December, the UNFCCC will convene in Paris, France, for its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21), with governments seeking a legally binding agreement with concrete pledges and essential finance contributions. Describing climate change as “this century’s major challenge”, French President François Hollande has embraced the role and responsibility France has in chairing this landmark meeting.
Prior to COP 21, the G7 summit at Schloss Elmau will once again place climate-change governance on the G7’s political agenda, with host German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently declaring that, “along with our G7 partners, we aim to prepare initiatives that demonstrate that the G7 states are willing to take on a leading role in fostering low-carbon development” through increased mitigation efforts and a sustainable energy supply. G7 leaders at Schloss Elmau are thus expected to once again be pioneers and set the stage for what will undoubtedly be highly contentious and extremely complex UN negotiations in Paris later this year.