Hopes for a significant breakthrough on climate change at the G20 were dashed Friday with the issuance of a final communique that was even more underwhelming than the drafts that leaked earlier in the week.
The final statement from the leaders called for greater focus on climate change, but included no new specific commitments. "We underscore anew our resolve to take strong action to address the threat of dangerous climate change," said the statement.
On financing for developing countries for climate change adaptation, mitigation, and technology development, they emerged with essentially the same agreement that they made in Italy in July, calling on their finance ministers to come to the next meeting with "a range of possible options for climate change financing to be provided as a resource to be considered in the UNFCCC negotiations at Copenhagen."
The most notable agreement was perhaps an expression of shared interest in ending fossil fuel subsidies, though there were no specifics offered to that end either. Instead, the leaders merely pledged to "rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption," keeping in mind the need to transfer some of those subsidies to programs that support those most economically vulnerable to fuel price increases.
But there was no further explanation of what the leaders even mean by subsidies—whether those would include tax breaks and loopholes as well as direct production and consumption subsidies. Leaders are to direct their finance ministers to provide guidance on how such a goal might be achieved in their countries.
Speaking to reporters after the summit, deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs Michael Froman—who serves as the liaison to the G8 and G20 summits—said that "no decision has been made" on how to define subsidies. "It wasn't a detailed discussion at this point," said Froman. "The key focus is both production and consumption subsidies that encourage wasteful use of fossil fuels."
Froman also addressed the issue of the political challenge Obama will likely face in the US on phasing out fossil fuels, and said they have already started examining options and meeting with members of Congress. "We are looking through the various programs that the government has in this category," said Froman. "We did do some consultations prior to the announcement with representatives from areas with strong fossil fuel industries."
Progress on an international deal on subsidies will likely make it easier for Congress, said Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, who was on hand for the summit. "When there's consensus in the international community about the urgency of slowing, stopping and reversing global warming, that's important," Casey told Mother Jones. "That's certainly a a positive development. It puts more pressure on the Congress to get something done."
On the financing question, however, Froman conceded that momentum had stalled: "The agreement today was to ask them to continue their work," he said. "That's as much as we were able to get consensus on." He added: "Clearly there is a lot of work to do between now and Copenhagen."
This was a big let down for NGO observers who had hoped that even if leaders moved no closer to an agreement on emissions cuts at Pittsburgh, they would at least hammer out a detailed plan on financing for poor countries. "It's pretty clear there was a mandate to make a comment on climate finance" coming out of the July meeting, said Keya Chatterjee, director of international climate negotiations for the World Wildlife Fund.
"This was an opportunity for them to make substantial progress," said Steve Herz, climate finance adviser at Greenpeace. "That was the big thing we were looking for to come out of this, and that didn't happen. It was a big disappointment."
This places a great deal of pressure on the November meeting of finance ministers in Scotland. Ten weeks out from the Copenhagen climate talks in December, the chances of a final deal there are now very low. There is still hope that the Copenhagen summit will be a milestone in the pursuit of a climate treaty. But there will need to be concrete commitments on financing in order for that to occur.
"We're leaving the big stuff all till the end," said WWF's Chatterjee. "I understand the urge to procrastinate, but this is ridiculous."