ROME — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Italy for a Group of 20 meeting on Friday with a stark warning: modern civilization could soon lie in ruins like ancient Rome if world leaders don’t act to curb climate change.
Johnson has one big goal at the G-20 gathering: to persuade the leaders of the world’s biggest economies to put their money where their mouth is at the U.N. climate summit in Scotland that starts Sunday.
Johnson will deploy his ebullience and his — admittedly divisive — charm to try to extract cash and carbon-cutting commitments from the G-20, which contains some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, including China, the United States, India and Russia.
Johnson told reporters aboard his plane to Rome that the Eternal City's ruins “are a fantastic reminder, a memento mori to us today … that humanity, civilization, society can go backwards as well as forwards and when things start to go wrong they can go wrong with extraordinary speed.”
Still, hee has expressed doubts that the COP26 climate summit will achieve its aim of extracting enough carbon-cutting commitments to keep alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
Johnson will urge G-20 leaders to act more quickly, saying the world’s rich countries, which grew wealthy from using the fossil fuels that warm up the Earth, must bear the brunt of fighting climate change.
He said “unless we get this right in tackling climate change, we could see our world our civilization go backwards and consign future generations to a life far less agreeable than our own,” with mass migrations, water shortages and conflicts because of climate change.
Accounting for 75 percent of the world’s trade and 60 percent of its population, the G-20 has often been accused of being too big and diffuse to take strong collective action. And Johnson’s Brexit-tinged global image means his arm-twisting power may be limited.
The G-20 is meeting as the European Union and ex-member Britain wrangle over trade rules, and amid a simmering U.K.-France spat over fishing rights in the English Channel. France is also incensed over a U.S.-U.K.-Australia nuclear submarine deal that saw Australia cancel a multibillion-dollar contract to buy French subs.
Those disputes are clouding Johnson’s hopes of a “G-20 bounce” to build momentum for the 12-day COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. He’s hoping to leave Rome bearing a sheaf of global carbon-cutting pledges, a plan to curb coal use and a long-promised, never-delivered $100 billion a year in aid to help developing countries tackle the impacts of climate change.
Major G-20 polluters, including Russia and Australia, have failed to improve on the carbon-cutting pledges made after the Paris conference. Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin, leaders of two of the biggest carbon emitters, plan to attend the G-20 or COP26 in person.
China released an updated version of its climate targets this week, promising to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 and to have its emissions peak by 2030.
Johnson said he “pushed” Xi to move the peak to 2025 when the two men spoke by phone on Friday.
“I wouldn’t say he committed on that,” Johnson admitted.
The world is currently far adrift of the goal set in Paris of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, considered a threshold between manageable and disastrous climate change. Keeping “1.5 alive” is the focus of the Glasgow meeting. To do it, Britain has honed in on a mantra of “coal, cars, cash and trees” — eliminating fossil fuels, switching to clean vehicles, spending money and stopping deforestation.
Johnson faces some big obstacles to winning over the world. Britain’s leader is mistrusted by many European leaders for his role in Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU and the years of rancorous divorce negotiations that have followed. U.S. President Joe Biden has also been wary, seeing echoes in Johnson’s crowd-pleasing antics of Donald Trump’s populism.
Johnson insists that Brexit does not mean a U.K. retreat from the world, and has championed his vision of an outward-looking “Global Britain” during the country’s presidency of the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations this year.
As well as casting himself as a climate champion, he’s urging G-20 nations to commit to vaccinating the world against the coronavirus by the end of 2022.
Johnson makes a more credible green messenger than some rich nations’ leaders. The U.K. has promised to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and has published a detailed plan for getting there. Unlike Australia, it is on course to eliminate coal from its energy mix within a few years. And unlike the United States, there’s limited political opposition in the U.K. to tougher climate rules.
But the U.K.’s annual budget, announced Wednesday, made scant mention of climate change while slashing passenger taxes on domestic flights and freezing taxes on automobile fuel.
Pessimists might wonder — if G-20 can’t agree how to fight climate change, what hope is there for the almost 200 nations who will gather at COP26 in Glasgow?
Yet Jared Finnegan, a public policy expert at University College London, sees progress in the fact that a Conservative British government wants to be seen as a green leader, and in the way the global conversation on climate has shifted.
“Even the fact that we’re talking about net zero by 2050 -- that is something that just wasn’t on the table even five years ago,” he said.