Trudeau in Rome for G20 summit as prospects for a deal on climate emissions remain uncertain

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral press conference with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte at Parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. Trudeau and Rutte said they will fight for aggressive climate action at the G20. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral press conference with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte at Parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. Trudeau and Rutte said they will fight for aggressive climate action at the G20. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

After a whirlwind one-day trip to the Netherlands to meet a long-time ally and friend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to Rome today for a G20 summit that may prove to be a more fractious event.

While it's usually a consequential annual gathering of world leaders, this year's G20 is widely seen as uniquely important because it comes only a day before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

That's where countries are expected to reaffirm past emissions reduction targets or — in the case of the developed world — top what was promised six years ago at the Paris talks while presenting concrete plans to make it happen. Some countries may turn out to be laggards.

The meeting is also a chance for world leaders to address the continuing COVID-19 health crisis — developing countries remain largely unvaccinated — and the resulting economic fallout from pandemic-fuelled inflation and supply chain disruptions.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

The success of COP26 — billed by some climate activists as "the last best chance" to set the world on a path to a lower-emissions future — may very well depend on what comes out of the G20, since member countries represent more than 80 per cent of the global economy.

As of Friday, there is no consensus among the G20 nations on two climate-related agenda items: an agreement to hold global temperature increases to 1.5 C (climate scientists working for the UN have said current global reduction commitments will result in a 2.7 C temperature spike, a catastrophic increase) and a complete phaseout of coal by mid-century.

At an earlier G20 summit with environment ministers in Naples, Italy, representatives of countries like China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia balked at these proposals. That suggests the final leaders' communique may be a watered-down version of what climate activists have been demanding. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said this week he will not support a push to set an end date for coal mining and coal-fired power stations.

"I'm fairly optimistic that we can still achieve a good outcome. But, if we don't work hard, it could be in trouble," Dutch Prime Mark Rutte said Friday at a press conference when asked about the prospect of climate success at the G20.

"The two of us will work very hard to do whatever we can to bring our colleagues along in the G20," Rutte said, pointing to Trudeau. "There's still a gap and a lot we need to do."

"There is much, much more to do," Trudeau added. Trudeau and Rutte have become close friends and allies; they pledged Friday after their bilateral meeting in the Hague to meet face-to-face every two years to address shared priorities, such as progress on climate issues.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of COP26, was also pessimistic about the chances of success earlier this week. Speaking to schoolchildren in London, Johnson said he was "very worried" about the success of COP26.

"It's gonna be very, very tough this summit. It might go, it might go wrong. And we might not get the agreements that we need. It's touch and go, it's very very difficult," Johnson said.

Independent Ontario Sen. Peter Boehm, who served as Canada's G7 emissary or "sherpa" at six summits before being named to the Red Chamber, said the Rome meeting will be "a bit of a fulcrum or a lever moving forward to the COP."

"If the G20 can more or less agree in their communique to give this all a push, then they will arrive in Glasgow with a good part of the work done," he told CBC News. "On climate change, there's a lot of impetus to do things."

A consensus of sorts

Boehm cautioned, however, that whatever climate consensus emerges from Rome will likely be disappointing to the most fervent climate change warriors.

The G20, a group of economically and ideologically diverse countries, may instead settle on a more general statement that global warming is real and worth fighting, leaving much of the specifics to the Glasgow negotiators.

"I think, in this particular instance, the governments are fairly close — they recognize the nature of the problem and it's huge. But they have their own political constituencies to heed and, of course, their industries," Boehm said, adding fossil fuel producing countries such as Canada are "trying to get that balance right."

The world is experiencing an energy crunch — China recently said it will ration power as it grapples with a shortage of fuels. So the call to do away with coal — a cheap, reliable but dirty source of energy — may fall on deaf ears, Boehm said.

"What you might get is some pragmatic language that will not necessarily satisfy stakeholders, and I'm thinking particularly on climate change, Greta Thunberg and all of the activists that are out there," he said, referring to the young Swedish climate campaigner.

"But it should represent some steps forward and, of course, pragmatism is what diplomacy is all about. It makes it less exciting but more realistic."

Leo Correa/The Associated Press
Leo Correa/The Associated Press

Boehm, who was the G7 sherpa when Canada hosted the summit in Charlevoix, Quebec in 2018, said another pressing concern for Trudeau and his fellow G20 leaders is just how few people in the developing world have been vaccinated against COVID-19 — a public health risk for the world because the unvaccinated could become vectors for new variants.

In an Oct. 27 letter penned by former British prime minister Gordon Brown and co-signed by dozens of other former world leaders — including Canada's Joe Clark — Brown said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and others need to address the inequitable distribution of vaccines while in Rome. Brown said that unequal access to vaccines is "plaguing the planet."

With only 2 per cent of people in low-income countries having received a vaccine dose, Brown said "high-level action by the G20 will help immensely" to get shots into the arms of the world's poor.

Boehm said he expects G20 leaders will commit to boosting the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which is charged with supplying the 'global south' with shots. It will then fall to the World Health Organization to send resources to countries that need help with distribution.

"Why is the global economy in such a fraught state? Well, it's because of the pandemic. We have to redouble our efforts to vaccinate more, to make this ACT accelerator work," Boehm said. "It's all we've got."

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