South Africa, the G20 and Climate Change: from Brown to Green?

The G20 meeting which has just been concluded in Hamburg, dogged by protests, was originally intended by the German presidency to be a way of building momentum around climate action in the wake of the Paris Agreement; however, the election of President Trump, and his subsequent decision to pull the US out of the Agreement, changed the nature of the summit altogether. There was widespread trepidation that the political consensus developed in Paris in 2015 on climate action would be shattered by the US withdrawal. In an unprecedented development, however (foreshadowed by the G7 earlier this year), the G20 Communiqué made a distinction between the US and the rest of the G20 (the G19), noting the US withdrawal, but also clearly stating that the Paris Agreement is “irreversible”, and reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to implementing the Agreement. Trump found no supporters even amongst countries traditionally hostile to climate action such as Saudi Arabia. Since the US last pulled out of a global climate agreement (the Kyoto Protocol, in 2001, during the Bush Administration), two things have changed: (i) global political will has strengthened dramatically to act on climate change, as some of the impacts are beginning to be felt, and (ii) the architecture of the Paris Agreement itself is more robust politically.

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was a landmark in the global effort to address climate change, concluded after more than two decades of painstaking international negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change. One of the key features of the Agreement is its “bottom up” nature. Instead of prescribing what action countries should each take on climate change (one of the key sticking points of previous negotiations), the Agreement specifies a global goal which all countries will strive together to accomplish. This is in the form of a commitment to keep the global average temperature well below 2 degrees, and make efforts to strengthen efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (considered the danger thresholds, over which climate change will have serious consequences). All countries also commit to making a ‘nationally determined contribution’ to this effort, decided by each country – the ‘bottom-up’ approach, as opposed to setting national emissions commitments centrally. This includes details on how their national emissions will be limited, measures taken to adapt to climate change, and in the case of developed countries, what assistance will be provided to developing countries to help them transition to a low carbon development path. Every five years, countries will jointly assess progress against the overall temperature goal under the auspices of the UNFCCC – to assess how countries are doing, and what the aggregate effect of their contributions will be in temperature terms. Countries then make further commitments, taking into consideration this global ‘stocktake’ – how the collective action of all countries matches up to the Paris Agreements goals, and what further action is required.

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