13 September, 2023

G20 renewables target is no substitute for a clear fossil fuel phase-out

The G20's new target of tripling renewables by 2030 is welcome, but the world will only meet its climate goals if this is coupled with a fossil fuel phase-out.

Motorbike riding past G20 Summit in India

This weekend’s G20 Summit was teed up to be disappointing on climate, and shamefully, the world’s richest countries didn’t fail to disappoint. Papering over the energy transition cracks, we were thrown a bone – a new renewables target. Although welcome, this can only help us meet our climate goals alongside a clear endgame for fossil fuels.

Despite this, the official communique doesn’t mention a fossil fuel phase-out, except for a reference to the ‘phase down’ of unabated coal in the power sector. French president Macron called the outcome ‘insufficient’ without a fossil fuel exit strategy, adding that the world needs to move away from coal by 2030 much faster.

On the eve of the Summit, the UNFCCC Global Stocktake synthesis report recognised the need to phase out unabated fossil fuels. The report totted up all government commitments in NDCs under the Paris Agreement to find the world will emit around 20 to 24 gigatonnes more CO2e in 2030 than is consistent with the 1.5°C warming limit. Our Climate Action Tracker gets similar results, with an upper range bang in the middle of theirs (22 GtCO2e) that would result in a 2.4°C hotter world.

Just this month at around 1.2°C of warming, Greece has been hit by massive floods following a summer of wildfires, and the UK had a record breaking seven consecutive days of 30-degree heat (in autumn). Thankfully, the G20 did reaffirm its commitment to the 1.5°C temperature goal by urging all countries to align their NDCs to it, although our CAT analysis finds no G20 government yet has achieved this.

On the face of it, the G20’s new commitment (spearheaded by Germany) to triple renewable energy capacity sounds impressive – and is certainly in line with what others are calling for, including COP28 President-Designate Sultan Al Jaber. But we can’t afford such targets to divert focus and gift the fossil fuel industry a free pass at yet another year of climate talks.

Subtle clues to this risk can be found in the G20’s communique. Keen-eyed readers will note that renewables are put on par with false solutions touted by the fossil fuel industry. In the same sentence as the renewables target is a call for ‘similar ambition’ for ‘abatement and removal technologies’.

It is worth unpacking this a bit. There are of course abatement and removal technologies that are ultimately critical to limiting warming to 1.5°C, however the main meaning of the reference in this text is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Its aim, fairly transparently, is to put fossil fuel development with CCS at the same level as renewables in terms of support and development by countries and companies.

Right now, oil and gas companies around the world are promoting fossil CCS for their production operations and touting it as a path to net zero. Of course, CCS does nothing to contain the vast majority of emissions from the burning of oil and gas when finally used. This appears to be a way to sidestep the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) call for no new fossil fuel developments.

Whereas renewables have been deployed at scale and are plummeting in cost, Fossil-CCS technologies remain as small-scale, expensive and ineffective as they’ve always been, despite decades of research.

The IPCC’s most recent assessment finds that this won’t change over this critical decade for action – that Fossil-CCS offers the least mitigation potential (less than 1 GtCO2e/year) and the highest costs ($50-$200/tCO2e) for mitigation in energy and industry to 2030. As we have shown, Fossil-CCS has essentially no role to play in decarbonising the power sector to 2030 or to 2050, its fate being sealed by high costs, energy penalties, and the fact that it cannot reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero.

The hard truth is that continued fossil fuel use cannot be made safe for the climate. In fact, our analysis shows the world needs to cut fossil fuel use by 6% a year to reach 40% reductions by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5°C. The starting gun for this rapid decline, according to the IPCC, is a peak in global emissions before 2025. While the G20 does acknowledge this milestone, the immediacy of a one-to-two-year timeframe calls for concrete commitments from the G20 with a view to getting an agreement on peaking into the COP28 cover decision.

The call to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 is a good development, but it may not be sufficient. The G20 explicitly states that it should be met ‘through existing targets and policies,’ suggesting extra effort won’t even be needed. However, we know this is not correct. As the IEA puts it, this “will require stronger policy actions by governments,” including more resilient supply chains, better integration of solar and wind into power systems and “renewables deployment in many more emerging and developing economies.”

It’s worth remembering that the accelerated deployment of renewables is happening mostly in the Global North. It’s widely recognised that regions like Africa need climate finance from wealthy countries to ensure they don’t get left behind in the clean energy revolution. On a positive note, G20 countries did commit to undertaking work to facilitate access to multilateral climate funds and enhance their leverage and ability to mobilise private capital.

The demand for this was reinforced in the recent Nairobi declaration of African leaders, which calls for a massive increase in renewable generating capacity on the continent to address energy poverty and provide clean energy for industry. To do this, leaders called for major support to reduce the cost of investment capital in Africa, including smart guarantee instruments and additional concessional finance to attract private capital.

To deliver a sustainable, 1.5-aligned energy transition, our analysis shows that new wind and solar capacity needs to increase fivefold to reach 1.5 terawatts per year by 2030. This is needed not only to meet growing demand for electricity, but to replace fossil fuels in the power system. The two go hand in hand – renewables only work to reduce emissions if they force out fossil fuels.

To actually achieve the emissions cuts needed, the power system needs to be more than 70% run on renewables, globally, by 2030. This will require policymakers to not only ramp up renewable capacities, but also to modernise their grid infrastructure, develop demand management approaches, and remove policies that bias markets towards fossil fuels. Current policies will not get us there.

Yet, despite calls for a faster phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in the COP27 cover decision, the G20 watered this down to ‘efforts over the medium term’ to phase out ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies that ‘encourage wasteful consumption.’ This weak intention, recommunicated every year since 2009 in Pittsburgh, is not working. IMF analysis this year shows that fossil fuel subsidies have continued to rise, and last year reached an all-time high of US $1.4 trillion.

The G20 is made up of the wealthiest countries in the world and is responsible for roughly four out every five tonnes of the world’s emissions. So while the G20’s clear commitment to operationalising the loss and damage fund is welcome, demand for such funds will only continue to grow and grow until we get emissions under control.

In short, it’s clear that there has been far from sufficient climate leadership from the G20.

The UN’s Climate Ambition Summit on 20 September needs to pick up the slack and create momentum for a much more positive outcome at COP28, including a timeframe for phasing out fossil fuels and hard commitment to peak GHG emissions by 2025.

With devastating climate impacts being witnessed around the world, this COP must be the year we commit to end fossil fuels.