G7 Leaders Summit, Carbis Bay, 2021 G7 Leaders Summit, Carbis Bay, 2021. Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

What we are seeing from summits like the G7 is a governmental equivalent of producing ever more elaborate revision timetables, without ever getting down to doing any revision, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

The G7 talks in Cornwall this weekend will be focusing on Covid-19, but the climate crisis is also on the agenda, in the lead up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November. If you listen to Tory politicians, you would think this was a matter of confirming steady progress towards worldwide reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to Alok Sharma MP, for example, the President of the COP, this year’s G7 is a landmark one for the climate because all the members have made some sort of pledge to get to net zero emissions.

We can expect to hear a lot about the G7, under the UK’s leadership, leading the way in switching away from coal – Sharma boasted recently that only 2% of our electricity is now generated from coal – with measures like the pre-G7 agreement to stop direct funding for coal-fired power stations. (This does not, as has been pointed out, preclude indirect funding, nor does the commitment have a start date agreed.)

We’ll also hear about measures like the requirement for corporations to report on climate impacts, agreed by the G7 finance ministers ahead of the summit, again with no timeframe, and proposals from the US and UK to increase climate finance for poor countries. These may be reported as ‘historic agreements’ and ‘significant steps’ towards addressing the climate crisis, but are they really?

In a word: no. The contribution of the G7 summit to the climate crisis can be summed up by the fact that Boris Johnson chose to travel the 250 miles or so from London to Cornwall by plane. While Carbis Bay was presumably chosen as the location of the summit so that the leaders would be in a remote spot and isolated from protestors, it’s not actually that far from public transport. Johnson could have got a direct train from Paddington and been at St Erth station, four miles from Carbis Bay, in under five hours.

Despite the ‘historic agreement’ at the Paris climate summit six years ago, and the ‘historic’ Copenhagen summit five years before that, emissions have still been going up, by about 1% a year between 2010 and 2018. The last couple of years have been more volatile, with a larger rise in 2019 and a fall in 2020, but it’s estimated that 2021 might see an almost unprecedented rise as a result of the post-Covid bounce-back. Historic, indeed.

UN Climate Change reported in December 2020 that governments ‘take…the Paris Agreement seriously, with commitment and responsibility’ because the quality of the commitments they have been making to emissions reductions has been improving. However, the same report shows that, on current commitments, greenhouse gas emissions will be only 0.7% down on 1990 levels by 2030. What this shows us is that governments are honing their skills in talking about action on climate change, without actually producing meaningful action.

It’s the same with many of the tangible commitments made at various climate summits. The UN Secretary General announced in December 2020, for example, that First World countries were not going to fulfil the pledge made at the Paris summit to ensure $100 billion in climate funding went to poorer countries. That much-vaunted UK move away from coal, meanwhile, has largely been to natural gas, which while lower in CO2 than coal is still a fossil fuel.

What we are seeing from summits like the G7 and COP on climate is rather like a governmental equivalent of producing ever more elaborate revision timetables, without ever getting down to doing any revision. It has been clear for some years that the answer to the climate crisis will not come through international jamborees in increasingly remote and fortified locations.

We do of course need action on climate to be international. Cuts in emissions in any one country won’t make a dent in global emissions unless other countries follow suit. The way will we achieve that, though, is through international solidarity on the ground and on the streets. If the movement in the UK, for example, could push our government into meaningful action, that would be an example and an inspiration to movements around the world far more effective than any amount of empty G7 promises.

Everything about the G7 summit so far, from Johnson’s travel arrangements to the people evicted from local hotels to make room for the delegates and their entourages, shows us that our governments are committed to getting back as quickly as possible to the pre-Covid world. Our task is to show that we’re not giving up on the vision of a better ‘new normal’.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.