Ed Crooks G20 reactions on the environment and energy

The London G20 summit ended on Thursday with the leaders wreathed in smiles, basking in the reflected glow from the brighter mood on world markets.

Meanwhile, however, the protestors that marched through London against climate change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banks and capitalism in general, were claiming victory in their bid to block the market-based solutions to climate change favoured by G20 leaders.

Some environmentalists and NGOs were left complaining that the meeting had paid nothing more than lip-service to the environment.

Even so, its significance for the environment and energy policy may be greater than the critics think.

The communiqué’s wording on energy and climate change was, of course, warm, and woolly to the point of self-parody.

On “green stimulus” plans, there was this:

27. We agreed to make the best possible use of investment funded by fiscal stimulus programmes towards the goal of building a resilient, sustainable, and green recovery. We will make the transition towards clean, innovative, resource efficient, low carbon technologies and infrastructure. We encourage the MDBs [multilateral develoment banks] to contribute fully to the achievement of this objective. We will identify and work together on further measures to build sustainable economies.

And on climate change, there was this:

28. We reaffirm our commitment to address the threat of irreversible climate change, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, and to reach agreement at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

It is easy to see how George Mobiot, the environmental campaigner, reached this reaction:

The G20′s strategy for solving the financial and economic crisis, in other words, is detailed, innovative, fully costed and of vast scale and ambition. Its plans for solving the environmental crisis are brief, vague and uncosted. The environmental clauses – which contradict almost everything that goes before – have been tacked onto the end of the communique as an afterthought. No new money has been set aside. No new ideas are proposed; just the usual wishful thinking: let’s call the whole package green and hope for the best.

There were similar sentiments from Oxfam, the charity and campaigning organisation:

“The G20’s lack of concrete action to tackle climate change or promote a ‘green new deal’ is very disappointing. This crisis provides perhaps the best opportunity we will have to move to a global low carbon economy on the back of recovery spending in rich countries, and so avoid catastrophic global warming. But the G20 postponed the difficult decisions and so missed a golden opportunity.”

Yet these response surely miss the point a bit. In spite of all the excitable talk about how crisis creates opportunities, there would be nothing more damaging to a sustained transition to a low-carbon economy than a prolonged and painful recession. When times are hard, people reach for the cheap and the easy, the familiar and the safe. Interest and funding for emerging or experimental technologies such as offshore wind power or a new generation of biofuels will be much harder to find.

The first contribution world leaders can make to fighting climate change is to set the world economy back on an even keel.

The G20′s role in delivering that should not be overstated, of course. The market reaction cannot be taken as a vote of confidence: equities had already begun to rise well before the final communiqué was released. Not everyone would share Mr Monbiot’s praise for the G20 plans to rescue the financial system. But they do at least seem to be taking some steps in the right direction, and unless we reach recovery first, a low-carbon economy will be unattainable.