When G20 leaders gathered for dinner under the open tropical night sky at the Garuda Wisnu Kencana monument in Bali on Nov. 15, the monsoon weather cleared its way for the momentous occasion.
Not a single drop of rain fell on the venue itself, rather it rained selectively on perimeter neighbourhoods. Of course, such precision was deliberate and not left to fate. A total of 11 flights shot 11.2 tons of salt into the clouds to prevent rain from falling on the shoulders of the G20 leaders. This “weather modification technology” is not new to the region, and its commonality is symptomatic of our apprehension of our relationship to the climate.
With that, the curtains of G20 Indonesia opened and closed with a prevailing dose of techno-optimism, but did the outcomes of this year’s highly anticipated meeting actually deliver concrete, immediate and committed climate action for an optimistic future?
Reckoning with the G20’s fit for purpose
With the entire document spanning 1,100-plus pages (though only 18 pages are the actual declaration), the G20 outcome is 52 paragraphs and opens with a condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the necessity of peace and stability to mend the fragilities of the global economy. However, the bloc was immediately quick to displace responsibilities to resolve by “recognizing that the G20 is not the forum [for] security issues.”
Yet, the reality of the world today renders the G20’s original mandate of an economic forum addressing financial stability rather obsolete and insufficient. If recent history has placed this G20 at an “unprecedented” intersection of multiple global crises, the breakdown of so many global systems (food, supply chains, peace, climate) also contends that we cannot rely on macroeconomic policies alone. That rings true when it comes to the hybrid war that saw the weaponization of energy sources and grain exports in parallel to physical violence.
A systemic rethink of the G20’s fit for purpose is warranted. We desperately need meaningful multilateralism to restore humanity’s path toward common prosperity. The globality of our collective challenges (and differentiated impacts) means coming to terms with the fact that the G20’s actions — and inaction — pose global reverberations. As such, beyond what the G20 can do for itself to resolve its dysfunctionality, it is equally important, if not more, to demand its responsibilities to deliver actions for the betterment of the rest of the world.
Moving beyond non-committal climate action banalities
With the G20 summit spilling into week two of COP27, the UN climate conference, the leaders’ declaration reaffirming its pledge to hold global warming to the 1.5 C limit provided a political signal to those in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to not regress on Glasgow commitments.
Yet, the G20 outcomes did not stretch much beyond the platitudes of non-binding commitments. As leaders convene with a world that is already experiencing a climate catastrophe, can we really afford to remain overly polite and “reaffirm,” “acknowledge” or “encourage” the previous voluntary targets, thus giving the illusion of implementation?
In the end, the responsibility for climate action will lie with everyone, but the onus is greatest on G20 countries, responsible for nearly 80 per cent of global emissions. Fossil fuel subsidies, the old chestnut, appeared once again in this year’s declaration despite the repeated 2009 pledge to phase out “inefficient” subsidies to no avail. (In fact, in 30 years of UN climate negotiations, eliminating the primary cause of global heating — fossil fuels, has never made it in the cover decisions, as was the case at COP27.)
While geopolitical conflicts and energy security concerns have made another boom year for fossil fuel investment, this parochial profit-driven mindset is inevitably leading our world to a bust. Just look around us.
Recovering together: with whom? Recovering stronger: how?
While the world’s strongest economies remain cognizant of their political influence far beyond their own national borders, it remains a question if this “recognition” indeed translates to action “to tackle global challenges, and lay a foundation for strong, sustainable, balanced, and inclusive growth.”
For example, despite the “recognition that the extensive COVID-19 immunization is a global public good,” it is discouraging to read this sentiment of supposed responsibility juxtaposed against the lack of measures to remove vaccine patenting, especially as the 2021 Rome Declaration also “reaffirm[s] that extensive COVID-19 immunization is a global public good.” In fact, some G20 members, including the U.K., the U.S., and the EU, have continued to actively block patent waivers, stifling vaccine production and immunization.
If the distribution and access to “global public goods” continue to be controlled by the wealthiest nations, “recognitions” and “reaffirmations” will remain empty, futile and regressive. If meaningful co-ordination cannot be instated in consideration of the G20 members and the demographic variations they represent, how can the bloc expect to display its leadership in vaccine equity at a global scale, much less its leadership in navigating multidimensional crises?
Diversifying the voices of the G20 means co-ownership
The thematic techno-solutionism stronghold is also often accompanied by skewed perceptions of one-way expertise, which simultaneously evokes the power imbalances at play within multilateral decision-making forums.
While several clauses in this year’s declaration make a point to list a roster of marginalized stakeholders, including youth, these shoutouts often do not instil confidence in the future generations who will inherit the decisions of today. Merely casting youth as “victims” is also a parochial interpretation of what meaningful intergenerational decision-making processes entail, which fundamentally needs to uphold accountability to future stewards of the planet.
The commitments to “digital innovation in agriculture and food systems … research and science and evidence-based approaches,” “mapping exercises … from technical experts and other relevant international organizations,” ''scientific knowledge-sharing, raising awareness, and capacity-building” beg the questions: evidence where, what technical experts, and capacity-building for whom?
The importance of co-developing strategies and responses with the most affected — including women, youth, farmers, coastal communities — cannot be understated because local knowledge is foundational to addressing context-specific challenges. Affected communities have important lessons and knowledge to share because they are the technical experts at the forefront of locally led solutions. The scale of challenges we face today necessitates a meaningful enrolment of site-sensitive knowledge and nurturing inclusion as a multi-way dialogue.
Repositioning our relationship with the planet
Indeed, the concerns raised are not exclusive to the G20 but expressive of the repeated shortcomings of international decision-making forums to move beyond sanitized and massaged forms of the status quo.
We are living on borrowed time. This age of crisis calls for a reposition of our relationship with the planet, and away from a technocratically driven, defensive posture of saviourism (read: seawalls, weather modification, and patchwork technology to survive temperature rise) that conceals the wreckage rather than undoing the forces that brought us here.
We are implored to break from dysfunctional patterns that insist on resistance against the planet to a reconciliation of our cohabitation with the planet and its living systems. The planet is a living system of which we are a part and cohabiting for the livability of future generations. For the G20 to live up to its claims of safeguarding a resilient and sustainable planet, we must instil a holistic idea of caring for the surroundings that nurture us, respecting the well-being of all future generations from whom we borrow the planet.
Jodi-Ann Jue Xuan Wang (Canada) and Nashin Mahtani (Indonesia) were youth delegates to G20 Indonesia 2022, negotiating on issues related to climate and environment. The views expressed here are their own.
Editor's note: The title for this opinion piece was changed to what the author's had originally submitted to better reflect the content.