The “Group of 7” countries (G7) concluded their forty-first annual G7 summit on Tuesday with a communique stating their commitment to “achieve a low-carbon global economy.” Leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, and the European Union gathered in a remote village in Bavaria to negotiate targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions for 2050 and 2100.
The summit came at a crucial time. German chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside French president François Hollande, aimed to use it to build momentum for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris this November. COP21 is expected to shape the global response to climate change for the next few decades, and the goal there is to pass a legally binding, global agreement for emissions reductions that will limit the global average temperature rise to less than 2° Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Indeed, the G7 leaders’ declaration supports this objective by promising a carbon-neutral global economy by 2100. In the shorter-term, the G7 statement advocates for 40-70 percent greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2050.
The inclusion of these numerical reductions targets incited debate. Japan and Canada were initially opposed to specifying a target. While the countries ultimately agreed on the broad 40-70 percent range, Merkel and Hollande had originally hoped for a more ambitious stance, closer to total decarbonization by 2050, rather than 2100, as well as country-specific outlines for how to meet the 2050 goals. (Currently, energy reductions plans for the G7 countries only extend to 2030.) But Japan and Canada pushed back against this more aggressive plan and ultimately succeeded in watering down the language of the final agreement.
Examining the Numbers
The agreed-upon reductions—40-70 percent by 2050, and nearly 100 percent by 2100—are directly taken from recommendations in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report on mitigation, published in 2014 and considered the leading authority on climate change. Yet some argue that even these targets are not stringent enough, particularly for developed countries. The international environmental organization 350.org believes that full decarbonization should occur by 2050 (or earlier); a report by scientists at Duke University recommends the G7 pledge to an 80 percent cut by 2050. Fortunately, the G7’s statement was a baseline, and some members have already promised to follow a stricter path. For example, the White House made a “climate deal” with China last November, in which both countries accepted an approximately 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2025—at the time, the White House also stated that their ultimate objective was closer to 80 percent reductions by 2050. The EU has made similar promises.
All UNFCCC countries agreed to publish Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), country-specific climate agendas, in advance of COP21. Japan and Canada have published the least aggressive of all the G7 nations’ plans. Japan has not yet submitted its INDC formally, but a leaked version indicates the country only intends to reduce emissions by 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030; Canada has pledged to cut by 30 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. On the surface, those numbers are hard to compare, but Climate Action Tracker translates them to comparisons with 1990 levels: using that metric, Japan’s objective is an 18 percent reduction, while Canada’s is just 2 percent. In comparison, the European Union pledges to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Already far behind their G7 companions, Japan and Canada must revise their INDCs to have any chance of following through with their international commitments.
Both Japan and Canada are highly reliant on fossil fuels. Following Fukushima, Japan has scaled up its coal, oil, and natural gas use to replace its former reliance on nuclear power. It has also directed the construction of coal plants in India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Canada, under President Stephen Harper, is highly invested in the carbon-intensive development of tar sands in Alberta. Last year, Harper, in reference to suggestions that Canada reduce its petroleum production, stated: “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.” And a report released by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan last week groups Canada and Japan with Russia and Australia, accusing the four nations of withdrawing “from the community of nations seeking to tackle dangerous climate change.”
While the scene looks bleak for these carbon-dependent nations, hopefully their ultimate acquiescence to the recent G7 statement signals that Canada and Japan are again committed to partaking in the community of nations working to reduce climate change.
The Follow Through
The G7 declaration is not a legally binding document, although it does create political pressure for implementation. Whether or not follow-through occurs will certainly be important in shaping the upcoming Paris negotiations. G7 compliance for seventy-two climate change agreements from 1985 to 2013, according to an assessment from the G8 Research Group, was 73 percent (across all policy spheres, overall compliance was not much higher at 75 percent). Follow-through was even worse with the 2009 COP15 climate talks. In a joint statement before COP15, the then-G8 countries (Russia is currently suspended) emphasized the importance of a global, ambitious agreement at Copenhagen and supported a goal of 80 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2050. But the G8 did not stick to their promise, and COP15 was widely considered a failure, with no binding agreement ever emerging from the conference.
If we are to avoid repeating the failures of Copenhagen, Japan and Canada must be consistently focused on climate change and must commit to the goals of the G7 agreement. This means revising their INDCs, suspending funding to overseas fossil fuel projects, and developing renewable infrastructure at home. But the real test for Japan and Canada’s commitment to the cause will be in Paris this winter.