U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a green “Marshall Plan” to fight climate change ahead of the G7 meeting of wealthy nations this weekend. But it remains to be seen whether the G7, or even Johnson’s own country, will live up to expectations.
According to The Times newspaper, Johnson said the world’s largest economies should support low and middle income countries in Africa and Asia to build large scale renewable energy projects. Johnson is understood to have directed the U.K. Foreign Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury to put together ideas for achieving this, to be presented at the G7.
The call comes amid unprecedented pressure from policy experts and international leaders for the richest countries to take on more of the responsibility for helping the world overcome the coronavirus pandemic and tackle the climate crisis. It also comes at a time when the U.K. government is pushing to decrease its foreign aid budget, from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.
The G7 club of the wealthiest nations, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., will meet on Friday in the U.K. as Covid-19 continues to ravage the global south and as scientists warn that global warming is accelerating more rapidly than previously thought. Last year’s summit was cancelled because of the pandemic, the only occasion since the group’s founding in 1975 that the meeting has not gone ahead. But now, the consensus appears to be that the world can no longer wait.
Among the growing chorus of voices, the United Nations has been especially vocal about what it expects from the seven countries. UN climate change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa called on the G7 to provide additional support for developing countries to strengthen climate policies.
“We know developing nations need this commitment but G7 nations need it as well,” Espinosa said in an address to the G7 last month. “The reality is that this is an act of collective self interest. Again, we cannot put out a wildfire threatening to engulf the whole world with a few wet blankets. We must fully extinguish it.”
The Elders, an influential group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, sent letters to the leaders of all the G7 nations demanding urgent and decisive action on both vaccines and climate change.
“In this moment of global crisis, multilateralism is uniquely important and uniquely threatened,” the letters read. “The threat will increase if the multilateral system fails to deliver on the pressing concerns of the moment—climate change and pandemic recovery. A failure in either regard risks further reducing trust in the multilateral system and may enable autocratic and populist leaders to do further damage to multilateral institutions, undermining the world’s ability to collectively tackle its shared challenges.”
Chair of The Elders Mary Robinson, the first woman prime minister of Ireland and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called out the U.K. for its controversial proposed cut to foreign aid.
“As [G7] host, the U.K. has a particular responsibility to match rhetoric with actions; a reversal of the planned suspension of its 0.7 percent aid target would send a clear signal and spur other G7 states to similar ambition,” Robinson said.
Nick Mabey, co-founder and CEO of European climate think tank E3G, told me what the G7 could and should be expected to do—and why climate action first necessitates Covid-19 action.
“What the G7 does is determine how much pressure there is on other countries to step up,” Mabey said. “But any pretence that you’re showing solidarity with the developing world on this long-term existential threat of climate change rings hollow if you don’t also overcome coronavirus. There’s now recognition that you can’t deal with different policies in separate silos; these are big issues that have to be dealt with together.” As a former senior government advisor and an attendee to many previous G7 meetings, Mabey said this summit was especially crucial. “I think this G7 has the highest expectations I’ve seen since the  financial crisis,” he said.
Mabey broke down the priorities for the upcoming summit. First, he said, the group needed to agree on a coronavirus support package for low and middle-income countries that would accelerate the vaccination of populations worldwide. “If the vaccine stuff isn’t done, that just rumbles through and takes up all the political energy for the rest of the year,” Mabey said. Dealing with coronavirus, he stressed, was a “necessary condition to be able to have a conversation about climate” at the COP26 summit, scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November.
The second area that the G7 needed to deliver on, Mabey said, was climate policy. Here, the G7’s meeting of environment ministers, held online last month, has already produced some results. At that meeting, ministers agreed to take actions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century (a marked increase in ambition over the previous target of 2 degrees). The nations also pledged to stop all funding of coal-fired power stations in developing countries from this year, and committed to protecting 30% of land in a bid to safeguard biodiversity. “We hope the leaders will go further on coal, cementing in a rapid phase down of coal by 2030,” Mabey said.
It was hoped the G7 and developed nations would also begin providing $100 billion of climate finance per year for developing countries, a promise first made a full 12 years ago at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit.
The third set of demands, Mabey said, was “perhaps the biggest and most important: this is about how the majority of the investment in resilient infrastructure is actually going to happen.” This would require large-scale financing via multinational development banks, as well as restructuring debt. “It makes sense if we say we’re going to increase the capital that multilateral development banks have, so there’s, say, double the amount of finance available, on the condition that it goes to green investments,” Mabey said. “That would be a serious offer. Without financing it’s going to be seen as a paper tiger.”
Despite the huge political and economic challenges of hashing out a deal, Mabey did see cause for optimism in the sense that NGOs and intergovernmental groups were largely on the same page about what needed to be done.
“The most interesting thing we’ve seen in the last six months is a very clear coming together of development and environment groups around a Covid-and-climate agenda for this G7, which hasn’t really happened since the ‘90s Rio summit,” he said, referencing the crucial 1992 Earth Summit that helped define the modern conception of global sustainable development. Part of that change, Mabey thought, had been actuated by the pandemic itself. “Development people now understand that without climate change being solved there’s no development, and climate people realize without solving Covid there’s no space to talk about climate,” he said. “Instead of fighting over the recovery money, there’s been a relatively mature attitude of ‘no, we need to get people up off the floor first and get economies back together.’ The climate [agenda] not trying to muscle to the front of the queue has been pretty important.”
But how hopeful should climate advocates be that the G7 will deliver what’s needed?
“At the political level I think there’s pressure to rebuild the transatlantic bridge [between the U.S. and Europe], for Biden to show America is back, and for the U.K. to show they’re still in the global game,” Mabey said. “That kind of geopolitical driver is very powerful.”
But the more challenging hurdle would be the detail; the mechanisms to bring promises to reality, including structural reform of the multilateral banks as well as the aforementioned increase in funding. “If the G7 are serious about mobilizing money at scale, they’ll need to follow it up much more actively with stronger institutional architecture, rather than just a communique decision,” Mabey said.
“If they fail, it’s a very big fail because of how much the G7 needs to get done.”
The G7 Summit will take place at Carbis Bay, Cornwall, U.K. from Friday 11 through Sunday 13.