g20 leadersG20 leaders meet at the 2009 London summit.Photo: Downing Street via Flickr

On June 26-27, leaders from the 20 largest economies will meet in Toronto, Canada, as a part of the Group of 20 summit. These countries represent 85 percent of the world’s global warming pollution and 83 percent of the world’s economic output. So with the heads of government of these powerhouse countries meeting, will climate change be on the agenda and will they make any strides in dealing with this challenge? The answers are: just barely and maybe.

Climate change is just barely on the agenda as Canada really doesn’t want to talk about it. The host country gets to largely set the agenda for the G20 summits. Canada really, really didn’t want to put climate change on the agenda of this month’s summit and only agreed to put it on the agenda at the last minute (thanks to a bunch of world leader’s essentially lobbying Canada). After all, the current Canadian government isn’t really thrilled to talk about climate change as it essentially has a no climate (or even an anti-climate) policy agenda.

Canada has an international legal commitment to reduce its global warming pollution by 6 percent below 1990 levels for the period 2008-2012. According to the Government of Canada’s own projections they will be 29 percent above their current target even with its current action. One of the main reasons is that their energy policy is encouraging the massive expansion of tar sands (as my colleagues have discussed here and here). And their current emissions target for 2020 is essentially to wait and see what the U.S. does (as this guest post highlights), while doing very little to proactively implement policies to change the trajectory of its pollution.

So climate change is just barely on the agenda at this G20 summit, and likely won’t be the main focus of this month’s summit, but could they still move the international effort forward?

Maybe some positive strides on climate change. Climate change isn’t front and center at this G20 summit, but there are three opportunities to move the global effort forward—phase-out fossil fuel subsidies, prompt-start finance, and “green growth.”

1.  Moving forward on the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies. The G20 leader’s agreed at last year’s summit to: “Rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption…”  Phasing out these subsidies is a win-win-win. A recent draft report by the IEA found that fossil fuel subsidies are worth about $557 billion in emerging and developing countries (as Reuters reported). This didn’t include subsidies in the developed world because they are generally more indirect (e.g., reduced tax rates, faster capital depreciation rates, etc.), but previous studies have estimated that these are significant. So phasing out these subsidies will free up some much needed cash for strapped economies. And it will free up some incentives which could be redirected to creating the future clean energy economy instead of supporting the dirty energy past. They are also estimated to have a sizeable impact on global warming pollution — up to an estimated 10 percent cut in emissions.

While it isn’t expected that this G20 summit will finalize how that commitment will be met, they will need to make enough progress so that firm decisions can be made at the G20 summit this November (this paper has some good suggestions on specifics that need to be agreed in Toronto). And just as I was about to post this a leaked draft of the G20 statement (available here) shows that the G20 may weaken this commitment by making it “voluntary” and “member specific” (ClimateWire, sub req.). This is a significant weakening of the only concrete step the G20 committed to take on climate change last year and hopefully will be eliminated before it is finalized this weekend.

2.  Outlining the prompt-start funding from key countries. In the Copenhagen Accord, developed countries made a commitment to deliver around $30 billion over the next three years to assist developing countries in deploying clean energy, reducing deforestation emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change (as I’ve discussed here). According to data compiled by WRI, total pledges are around $31 billion so meeting that objective is easily within reach. But not all of that money is actually committed as countries are in various stages of their budget cycle. For example, the Obama administration outlined $1.4 billion in this year’s budget (as my colleague detailed), but Congress has yet to approve the expected number (and there are troubling signs that it may be cut a bit). And countries are slowly moving the money out the door to assist developing countries in these efforts. Some coordination is already beginning to occur around deforestation, but the other avenues of funding (adaptation and clean energy) have very little coordination.

The G20 could play a key role in accountability of that prompt-start funding. These leaders could look each other in the eye and ask: “you committed to X amount, where are you in delivering on that amount?”

3.  Begin the drumbeat on the creation of low carbon economies (or “green growth”). These major economies of the world could jump start a real race for the clean energy future – a market that will be valued at $17 trillion over the next two decades (as I’ve discussed). The current G20 summit is grappling largely with economic issues. While the current state of the global economy will be front and center, these key countries need to also begin to focus on the future drivers of economic prosperity. As many economists, labor unions, policymakers, and columnists have pointed out: clean energy will be one of the main drivers of this century.

The G20 could begin a serious focus on what steps each country is taking to create their own “race for the clean energy future” and how the G20 countries could collectively spur low carbon (or “green growth”) throughout the world. While Canada isn’t really the best country to lead a conversation on the development of low carbon growth (as I’ve pointed out above), the hosts of the next G20—South Korea—are a leading country pursuing and advocating for low carbon growth. In fact, they are the only country that has a presidential commission on green growth and recently launched a “Global Green Growth Institute.” The Toronto G20 summit could launch a shift in the G20 to a much more focused effort on creating low carbon economies throughout the world. This shift could lead to a concerted focus on this issue at the Rio+20 summit to be held in 2012 (as my colleague discussed), with tangible outcomes in the meantime.     

Looking to Seoul, Korea to firm up some of these details.  I don’t expect that this month’s G20 summit will resolve the issues around the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, prompt start finance, or how to spur “green growth.” But this summit will have to make enough progress that real decisions can be agreed at the next G20 summit in Seoul, Korea (Nov. 11-12).

These key countries are too dominant in global warming pollution and economic output to not be critical in leading the world to a clean energy future which addresses global warming. Let’s hope they use their time wisely to really spur the necessary action.

Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard.