• Ian Sutton

The G20 Moving Target

Credit: Unsplash

This week — the final week of October 2021 — was discouraging for those following government responses to the climate change crisis. Leaders of the G20 nations met in Rome, Italy. Climate change was one of the main agenda items.

Up until this point, many nations had agreed on a target of ‘Net Zero by 2050’. The G20 statement modified that specific goal. They are now aiming for “meaningful and effective” action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but they offered few concrete commitments. Moreover, China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, has set a target date of 2060, and other large polluters such as India and Russia have also not committed to the 2050 target date.

What is ‘Mid Century”?

The most troublesome statement from the G20 meeting was that they are now aiming for net zero emissions “by or around mid century”. Which begs the question, “When is mid century”?

Governments working on climate change issues are prone to making fine-sounding statements of intent, but tend to less willing to come up with precise, numerical goals. Which is one reason the term ‘Net Zero by 2050’ has been so important and why it attracted so much attention.

The phrase came from the ‘clunky sentence’ that was part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). [my emphasis]

In plain English this statement means that all carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced to zero by the year 2050. If fossil fuels continue to be used then their emissions will have to be matched by an equal amount of carbon capture.

Now, six years later, we have moved from ‘net zero by 2050’ to ‘net zero by or around mid century’. This change of wording sounds minor, but actually it matters. Would the year 2070 count as being “mid century”? The authors of the IPCC reports provided a range for their 2050 target: 2045-2055. The G20 statement does not offer a specific, numerical target range. In other words, the target has no real meaning. To be effective a target has to be specific and measurable. The ‘Net Zero by 2050’ target met both of those criteria; ‘Net Zero by mid century’ does not.

The G20 meeting was a preliminary to the main event: COP26 in Glasgow. It is possible that the delegates to that meeting will develop meaningful and actionable targets. However, the fact that neither Russia nor China showed up at the G20 meeting was a discouraging early signal. Hopes are not high.

The Path Forward

Only governments have the power and financial resources to execute major changes, such as closing all coal-fired power stations or implementing a world-wide carbon tax. Therefore, it is important to keep pressuring them to take the right actions. But the results so far are discouraging.

The reason that governments are not more effective in implement effective climate change programs is that such programs generally call for hard decisions and for individuals or organizations to make sacrifices. For example, if coal-fired power plants are shut down then most of the workers in the coal industry will lose their jobs. A carbon tax may help reduce our use of fossil fuels, but it could also lead to a cut in corporate profits so that senior managers receive smaller bonuses.

What these thoughts suggest is that small and mid-size organizations may be able to implement climate change programs more quickly and effectively because they are not so subject to pressure from myriad interest groups. Also, smaller organizations are more likely to be able to adjust to increased localization of economic activity as supply chains around the world start to crack. Success will come to those organizations that focus more on resilience than on efficiency.