The G-20 becomes the showpiece for a dysfunctional global order

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This weekend, the Group of 20 major economies will convene for a top-level meeting in Rome. The bloc’s nations represent some two-thirds of humanity, 85 percent of all global economic output and all of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. These countries include many multinational corporations and the most powerful government in the world. Where the G-20 goes, the rest of the planet is inextricably bound to follow.

That’s especially true now, as the G-20 deliberations function as a de facto precursor to next week’s United Nations COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. The latter has been cast by organizers and activists alike as a defining moment for climate action, though expectations have lowered amid major gaps between various governments and environmental campaigners on the way forward.

Much of what may define COP26 as a success may — or may not — be thrashed out in the Roman neighborhood where President Biden and his G-20 counterparts are soon to gather. The neighborhood was designed eight decades ago by Italy’s fascist government, but the venue for the G-20 sessions will be a futuristic, glass-encased convention center known as “the Cloud.”

“It was to be a place where you wouldn’t be bound by antiquity,” Luca Ribichini, a professor of architecture at Rome’s Sapienza University, to my colleague Chico Harlan. “It was supposed to personify the new modernity.”

The G-20 seems to embody something broader about our contemporary moment, too. This bloc was formed in response to the Asian financial crisis. A decade later, it was a G-20 summit that helped mobilize the global response to the 2008 financial crisis, generating commitments of over one trillion dollars in government spending to restore credit, growth and jobs. As a forum including both the traditional 20th century powers of the West as well as emerging giants of the developing world, it rose as the defining bloc of the post-Cold War order. The annual geopolitical calendar made it the most important event.

That picture is less clear now. It is clear that international politics has drifted deeper. This can be seen in the differences in the bloc as well as its inability or inability to pursue an ambitious collective agenda. The G-20 has been sluggish in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, even though its countries have secured the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply. Political differences between countries now drown out shared economic interests, with bloc members bearing their hatchets to Rome.

The G-20’s organizing philosophy — tethered around support for international cooperation and rejection of protectionist policies — has weakened in the face of ascendant nationalists around the world. During his stint in office, President Donald Trump managed to make every G-20 event he attended an arena for angry confrontation and abrasive competition.

The mood may be less testy this time in Rome, not least because Trump is out of power and neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping look likely to be in attendance. Modest wins will include agreements on a notional global minimum tax rate for big companies — though implementing these measures on national levels may take considerable time — as well as pledges to help slash global methane emissions by 30 percent by the next decade. But curbing methane, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently stated, “is the lowest-hanging fruit.”

Far thornier debates over fossil fuels may not be settled. Biden comes to Europe seeking to lead a united front on climate action, but he is hobbled by politics at home, where some lawmakers have eaten away at his ambitious climate plan and defended the interests of major fossil fuel companies. His weakened hand is not aided by major divisions within the G-20 over how to wean the world off coal and what realistic targets should guide the bloc’s climate agenda.

“The United States is pressing China to set more ambitious commitments for when it will peak its carbon emissions and offer specifics about Xi’s promise to stop financing coal-fired power plants abroad,” my colleagues reported last week. “Absent those actions, global temperature increases are expected to surpass 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) in the coming years, resulting in a rise of extreme weather events, hurricanes, droughts, forest fires, loss of biodiversity, and food and water scarcity.”

But the Biden administration is hardly a trendsetter, either. “The United States has been loath to join a push by Italy and the United Kingdom for coal phaseouts at home and abroad, across the G-20,” explained the New Republic’s Kate Aronoff. “China pledged in September to stop financing coal projects abroad, although the country has ramped up coal-fired power generation in recent months after catastrophic flooding inundated mines in one of the country’s biggest coal-producing regions.”

Last week, the heads of governments of a handful of smaller countries, including Sweden, Ireland, the Marshall Islands and Costa Rica, released an open letter to the G-20, urging radical action from the world’s “largest emitters and wealthiest countries.”

“We also need to see concrete strategies on how they will reach climate neutrality by 2050,” the letter added, before gesturing to unfulfilled promises of climate financing for poorer countries on the front lines of climate change: “And crucially, we call on all donor countries to show solidarity and deliver on the financing promise of $100 billion annually.”

What happens in Italy will be a major sign for what can be accomplished in Scotland. “In some ways we’ll know how this movie is going to turn out by the end of the G-20 summit in Rome,” Alden Meyer, a senior associate with research group E3G, told Bloomberg News. Either we will have an agreement, then we head to Glasgow with the tailwind and figure out how we can implement it. Or we go in with a pretty big split and it being very difficult to resolve those differences.”

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