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Economy

G20 climate commitments need to be turned into action

Members can still cooperate on sustainable energy technologies despite US bowing out

A coal-burning power plant and a factory belch smoke in Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.   © Reuters

The Group of 20 summit in Hamburg is over. But what will remain, beyond bitter memories of shameful rioting? There was a remarkable show of unity on trade, Africa, women's empowerment and many other issues. But the G20 was not united on climate change. The U.S. refused to sign a declaration re-confirming the commitment of the other 19 countries that they will continue to support the Paris agreement. Yet, the U.S. did announce a desire to "lower emissions" while supporting energy security and helping other countries to "use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently."

This division in the declaration marks a substantial divergence in declared policy approaches. But even more important than declarations will be actions. The U.S. pledge to help other countries, mostly less-developed countries that are not part of the G20, to use fossil fuels more cleanly should not become a meaningless declaration.

All too often, countries that are in need of basic infrastructure investment, access to power, transport and clean water still turn to cheaper and more readily available 20th century technologies. This means fossil fuels. And every coal power plant built now will be in use for 40 years, contributing to climate change. As urbanization progresses, it will be of fundamental importance to climate change whether the new cities will have a low or a high carbon footprint. Will their transport system be based on fossil fuel cars, and will they be built in a way requiring major air conditioning or relying on green cooling? These choices will be of central importance for whether the Paris climate agreement goals can be met.

If it wants to achieve the Paris climate goals, the G20 needs to show leadership in helping developing countries to build low carbon infrastructure as they develop. In particular, the role that China plays will be fundamental. China's Belt and Road Initiative is probably the largest infrastructure project in the world right now. Its aim is to connect countries across the Asian continent and also Africa and Europe. The infrastructure needs and urbanization tendencies in the region will be substantial, so incorporating a sustainability element in the Belt and Road Initiative would be an important concrete step to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The European Union and China could usefully collaborate on this important sustainability dimension of the Belt and Road. Europe has advanced technology that can be easily deployed. European banks could also be interested in becoming co-financers of green investments. Joint leadership on climate change from China and the EU could be a game changer for this large Chinese investment initiative.

The G20 has also agreed on a Compact for Africa, and a sustainability element should also be built into the help that will be granted to private firms investing in African countries. Africa, with its fast-growing population, is one of the continents where the future of climate change will be decided. Again, the primary goal should be to deploy renewable energy sources as infrastructure gets developed. And again, G20 countries need to put words into action. Yet, there may be countries preferring to largely deploy fossil fuels. Ideally, G20 members should encourage these countries to use the most efficient technologies, and U.S. support in this regard may be useful.

On the whole, the G20 faces the same challenge as all the party members to the Paris agreement: how to turn bold promises into concrete action. And the need to act is nowhere more urgent that on climate change. Prioritizing sustainability in the massive infrastructure investments that the Chinese Belt and Road and the Compact for Africa may trigger will be of utmost importance to achieve our climate goals.

Guntram Wolff is director of Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels.

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