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Promising Prospects for President Biden's 2021 Climate Summit

John Kirton, Director, G7 and G20 Research Groups
March 27, 2021

On March 26, 2021, U.S. president Joe Biden formally announced that he would hold a "Leaders Summit on Climate" on April 22–23, 2021 (White House 2021). With the summit starting on Earth Day, it would "underscore the urgency – and the economic benefits – of stronger climate action." It would also be "a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow," seeking to "catalyze efforts" to keep with reach the goal of limiting global warming to under 1.5°C from preindustrial times. It would "also highlight examples of how enhanced climate ambition will create good paying jobs, advance innovative technologies, and help vulnerable countries adapt to climate impacts."

The United States promised that before the summit it will announce "an ambitious 2030 emissions target as its new Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement." President Biden urged his invited leaders to use the summit to do so too. He did not make doing so a condition of receiving an invitation, as a recent climate summit had.

To identify the guest list, he has reconvened the U.S.-led Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF), which Republican president George W. Bush created on May 31, 2007, with its first meeting held in Washington D.C. on September 27–28 that year. Its 17 members produce about 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions and gross domestic product. President Biden has added countries that are showing strong climate leadership, as well as countries that are more vulnerable to climate impacts or are "charting innovative pathways to a net zero economy" (White House 2021). He is including "a small number of business and civil society leaders."

It is a welcome start in many ways. It builds on the climate commitments made at the fast-start, special G7 Virtual Summit held on February 19 and at the first Quadrilateral Summit on March 12. In calling the Quadrilateral Summit and now the Earth Day summit a month later, Biden is not waiting for another two and a half months until the G7's Cornwall Summit in June, and a full half year until the G20's Rome Summit at the end of October. He is not letting the continuing COVID-19 crisis crowd out action on climate change as his presidential predecessor did last year. Rather he is seeking immediate action in a forum more inclusive than the G20 one but one more manageable than the universal United Nations, with its entrenched coalitions and caucus groups that had so frustrated President Barack Obama at Copenhagen in 2009 (Obama 2020, 503–16).

But much is missing. There is no reference to how this summit might contribute to the global effort to combat COVID-19 and many health harms it has brought. There is no reference to gender, which is also intimately connected to climate change. Among the 40 leaders invited are only six women, for a gender ratio of 85% men to 15% women. Also absent are Indigenous Peoples, suggesting they are seen as just another civil society group. And there are apparently no invitations to the heads of any multilateral organizations, starting with those on climate, biodiversity and the environment, and extending to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group, both members of the G20, or the secretary general of the UN. President Bush included the UN when, on May 31, 2007, he announced the first Major Economies Meeting.

Finally, there is a heavy emphasis on emission sources, energy and technology rather than on carbon sinks, agriculture and nature-based solutions. In fact, nature-based solutions were mentioned only once, near the end of the announcement.

The Past Performance of the Major Economies Forum

With this promising but partial and skewed start, predicting the prospects for this MEF-based summit to achieve rapid, robust real results requires recalling the record of the earlier MEFs.

The leading assessment comes from John Kirton and Ella Kokotsis (2015). Assessing the global governance of climate change by the G7/G8, G20 and UN, they saw "a return to direct G8-centered climate leadership from 2005 to 2014 … toward an enhanced version of its initial, inclusive, ambitious, environment first, effective, G8-led regime. That regime now centred on informally agreed action by the G8, with its new, increasingly equal G5, MEM/MEF, and G20 partners in direct support" (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015, 13–14). Sander Happaerts (2015) also argued that discussions with rising powers in the MEF and G20 enabled them to consider making their own contributions to reducing emissions. A closer look at the performance of the first two MEF summits supports this view.

The Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, created by President Bush, had its first meeting in Washington DC on September 27–28, 2007. Its first summit took place on July 9, 2008, as part of the G8's summit in Hokkaido, Japan. It included 17 leaders, all from G20 countries (which had not yet met at the leaders' level) but without Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Argentina. In their four-page declaration, these leaders made 30 commitments (see Appendix A). Two commitments have been assessed for compliance and averaged 67%. U.S. compliance averaged a solid 50%. Compliance with the five assessed commitments of the 54 climate commitments made by the G8 and MEF at Hokkaido averaged compliance of 77%.

The second MEF summit was announced by President Barack Obama on March 28, 2009, and held as part of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on July 9, 2009. Leaders from the same 17 countries met there. In their two-and-a-half-page declaration they made nine commitments (see Appendix B). None has been assessed for compliance. But the five assessed commitments of the total of 42 climate commitments made by the G8 and MEM leaders at L'Aquila averaged compliance of 82%. The global financial crisis then raging did not crowd out high commitment and compliance.

Now, over a decade later, President Biden has begun with a bigger base, by inviting all G20 leaders and another 20 from beyond that group. But by late April their attention may be deflected by the COVID-19 crisis, now escalating in major emitters such as India and in major sinks such as Brazil with its forests and Indonesia with its peat. And in Washington, Biden must still cope with a divided Congress that ultimately made the 2008 and 2009 MEFs fail to fulfill their promise at the UN's climate summits at Copenhagen in 2009 and even at Paris in 2015. Will Biden and his G40 climate summit save the Glasgow Summit from a similar failure in November and – far more importantly – from the escalating death and destruction from climate change?


Happaerts, Sander (2015). "Rising Powers in Global Climate Governance: Negotiating inside and Outside the UNFCCC." In Rising Powers and Multilateral Institutions, Dries Lesage and Thijs Van de Graaf, eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 317–42.

Kirton, John and Ella Kokotsis (2015). The Global Governance of Climate Change; G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Farnham: Ashgate).

Obama, Barack (2020). A Promised Land (New York: Crown).

White House (2021). "President Biden Invites 40 World Leaders to Leaders Summit on Climate," March 26. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/26/president-biden-invites-40-world-leaders-to-leaders-summit-on-climate

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Appendix A: Commitments in the Declaration of Leaders Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change, July 9, 2009

Commitments = 30

2008-251: Conscious of our leadership role in meeting such challenges, we, the leaders of the world's major economies, both developed and developing, commit to combat climate change in accordance with our common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and confront the interlinked challenges of sustainable development, including energy and food security, and human health. (climate change)

2008-252: Recognizing the scale and urgency of the challenge, we will continue working together to strengthen implementation of the Convention and to ensure that the agreed outcome maximizes the efforts of all nations and contributes to achieving the ultimate objective in Article 2 of the Convention, which should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. (climate change)

2008-253: recognizing the need for urgent action and the Bali Action Plan's directive for enhanced implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we commit to taking the actions in paragraph 10 without delay. (climate change)

2008-254: We support a shared vision for long-term cooperative action, including a long-term global goal for emission reductions, that assures growth, prosperity, and other aspects of sustainable development, including major efforts towards sustainable consumption and production, all aimed at achieving a low carbon society. (climate change)

2008-255: Taking account of the science, we recognize that deep cuts in global emissions will be necessary to achieve the Convention's ultimate objective, and that adaptation will play a correspondingly vital role. (climate change)

2008-256: We believe that it would be desirable for the Parties to adopt in the negotiations under the Convention a long-term global goal for reducing global emissions, taking into account the principle of equity. We urge that serious consideration be given in particular to ambitious IPCC scenarios. (climate change)

2008-257: Significant progress toward a long-term global goal will be made by increasing financing of the broad deployment of existing technologies and best practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience. However, our ability ultimately to achieve a long-term global goal will also depend on affordable, new, more advanced, and innovative technologies, infrastructure, and practices that transform the way we live, produce and use energy, and manage land. (climate change)

2008-258: We will do more – we will continue to improve our policies and our performance while meeting other priority objectives – in keeping with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. (climate change)

2008-259: In this regard, the developed major economies will implement, consistent with international obligations, economy-wide mid-term goals and take corresponding actions in order to achieve absolute emission reductions and, where applicable, first stop the growth of emissions as soon as possible, reflecting comparable efforts among them. (climate change)

2008-260: At the same time, the developing major economies will pursue, in the context of sustainable development, nationally appropriate mitigation actions, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, with a view to achieving a deviation from business as usual emissions. (climate change)

2008-261: Our nations will continue to cooperate on capacity-building and demonstration activities; (climate change)

2008-262: [Our nations will continue to cooperate] on innovative solutions, including financing, to reduce emissions and increase removals by sinks; (climate change)

2008-263: [Our nations will continue to cooperate] on methodological issues. (climate change)

2008-264: We also stress the need to improve forest-related governance and cooperative actions at all levels. (Environment – changed from forests by Caroline Bracht February 21, 2014)

2008-265: We will work together in accordance with our Convention commitments to strengthen the ability of developing countries, particularly the most vulnerable ones, to adapt to climate change. This includes the development and dissemination of tools and methodologies to improve vulnerability and adaptation assessments, the integration of climate change adaptation into overall development strategies, increased implementation of adaptation strategies, increased emphasis on adaptation technologies, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability, and consideration of means to stimulate investment and increased availability of financial and technical assistance. (climate change)

2008-266: We will promote the uptake and use of such technologies including renewables, cleaner and low-carbon technologies, and, for those of us interested, nuclear power. (climate change)

2008-267: For the longer term, research, development, demonstration, deployment, and transfer of innovative technologies will be crucial, and we acknowledge the need to enhance our investment and collaboration in these areas. (energy)

2008-268: Mindful of the important role of a range of alternative energy technologies, we recognize, in particular, the need for research, development, and large-scale demonstration of and cooperation on carbon capture and storage. (climate change)

2008-269: We also note the value of technology roadmaps as tools to promote continuous investment and cooperation in clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment. (energy)

2008-270: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Work together on mitigation-related technology cooperation strategies in specific economic sectors (climate change)

2008-271: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] promote the exchange of mitigation information and analysis on sectoral efficiency(climate change)

2008-272: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will promote] the identification of national technology needs and voluntary, action-oriented international cooperation (climate change)

2008-273: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] consider the role of cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions, consistent with the Convention; (climate change)

2008-274: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Direct our trade officials responsible for WTO issues to advance with a sense of urgency their discussions on issues relevant to promoting our cooperation on climate change; (climate change)

2008-275: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Accelerate enhanced action on technology development, transfer, financing, and capacity building to support mitigation and adaptation efforts; (climate change)

2008-276: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Support implementation of the Nairobi Work Programme on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation to climate change; (climate change)

2008-277: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Improve significantly energy efficiency, a low-cost way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance energy security; (climate change)

2008-278: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Continue to promote actions under the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer for the benefit of the global climate system; (climate change)

2008-279: [To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the Convention between now and 2012, we will] Intensify our efforts without delay within existing fora to improve effective greenhouse gas measurement. (climate change)

2008-280: Our nations will continue to work constructively together to promote the success of the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009. (climate change)

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Appendix B: Declaration of the Leaders the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, July 9, 2009

Commitments = 9

2009-229: Recalling the Major Economies Declaration adopted in Toyako, Japan, in July 2008, and taking full account of decisions taken in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007, we resolve to spare no effort to reach agreement in Copenhagen, with each other and with the other Parties, to further implementation of the Convention. (climate change)

[Our vision for future cooperation on climate change, consistent with equity and our common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, includes the following:]

1. Consistent with the Convention's objective and science:

2009-230: Our countries will undertake transparent nationally appropriate mitigation actions, subject to applicable measurement, reporting, and verification, and prepare low-carbon growth plans. (climate change)

2009-231: We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C. In this regard and in the context of the ultimate objective of the Convention and the Bali Action Plan, we will work between now and Copenhagen, with each other and under the Convention, to identify a global goal for substantially reducing global emissions by 2050. (climate change)

2009-232: We will take steps nationally and internationally, including under the Convention, to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emissions by forests, including providing enhanced support to developing countries for such purposes. (climate change)

2009-233: Adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is essential. We will work together to develop, disseminate, and transfer, as appropriate, technologies that advance adaptation efforts. (climate change)

2009-234: We are establishing a Global Partnership to drive transformational low-carbon, climate-friendly technologies. We will dramatically increase and coordinate public sector investments in research, development, and demonstration of these technologies, with a view to doubling such investments by 2015, while recognizing the importance of private investment, public-private partnerships and international cooperation, including regional innovation centers. (climate change)

2009-235: Drawing on global best practice policies, we undertake to remove barriers, establish incentives, enhance capacity-building, and implement appropriate measures to aggressively accelerate deployment and transfer of key existing and new low-carbon technologies, in accordance with national circumstances. (climate change)

2009-236: Lead countries will report by November 15, 2009, on action plans and roadmaps, and make recommendations for further progress. (climate change)

2009-237: Our countries will continue to work together constructively to strengthen the world's ability to combat climate change, including through the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. In particular, our countries will continue meeting throughout the balance of this year in order to facilitate agreement in Copenhagen. (climate change)

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