Guide to G-20 leaders and why a climate deal is so hard to get


The Group of 20 came into its own during the 2008 financial crisis in order to avoid a global depression. It was a turning point that made clear that big decisions could no longer be taken without the fastest growing economies.

Fast forward to now, and the leaders of the nations that account for 75 percent of global carbon emissions are again being called to arms to avert another catastrophe—a climate one. The G-20 is meeting in Rome this weekend right before COP26 in Glasgow, the United Nations gathering that aims to set specific goals to wean nations off coal and other noxious substances for good.

This time around, the G-20 risks falling short and a draft communiqué seen by Bloomberg News shows just how much is still up in the air. For starters, some key players aren’t showing up in person. Last year the entire summit was held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push to consign coal to history and achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century looks out of reach. There is a sense that the old establishment represented by the Group of Seven nations tried to impose itself on the likes of China, Russia and India rather than actively engage them.

The mood of mutual suspicion is hard to bridge without the kind of face-to-face contact that can clear the air. The meeting comes as countries grapple with spiraling energy costs and supply-chain shortages, challenges that are reigniting geopolitical tensions between producers and users.

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and President Joe Biden’s inability to set climate goals at home have also cast a shadow on US leadership when most needed.

Here is your guide to the complicated considerations of leaders as they attend, or dial in, to the two-day summit starting October 30.

Italy | Mario Draghi, The Host

It’s a bit of awkward for the man who saved the euro and likes to get things done. The reality is that, as the unelected technocratic leader of a smaller developed economy, he’s not in a position to dictate climate terms. Italy itself has yet to make a contribution to the $100-billion fund aimed at helping poorer countries. As the former head of the European Central Bank, Draghi commands respect and is carving a larger role for himself within Europe’s circle of influence—but corralling G-20 holdouts into submission might prove beyond even his abilities. At home he’s focused on restoring order to the economy amid speculation his next career move might be to become head of state. 

UK | Boris Johnson, The Convert

In a much-cited 2000 column in the Daily Telegraph, the now Conservative prime minister ridiculed “eco doomsters” with such gusto that more than a few skeptics raised an eyebrow when he took to the United Nations General Assembly recently with an impassioned speech about the need for humanity to face its responsibilities to the planet. Johnson is one of the few politicians who can pull off a U-turn and his unflappable optimism has been key to his political success. But his relationship with the European Union after Brexit remains difficult—with France it’s particularly antagonistic. As host of COP26 he’ll need all his powers of persuasion to force a miraculous shift.

US | Joe Biden, The Letdown

Biden will kick off his European tour with two acts of contrition. On Friday, the devoutly Catholic president will have a private audience with Pope Francis amid pressure from US conservative bishops over his stance on abortion rights. He’ll then pull France’s Emmanuel Macron aside for a chat to repair an alliance bruised by his role in convincing Australia to cancel a submarine contract with Paris to instead pursue a purchase of nuclear-powered ships from the US or the UK Biden leaves behind a stalled legislative agenda and faces the disillusionment of many allies whom he had promised “America is back.”

Germany | Angela Merkel, The Departing

It’s a passing-of-the-baton moment from the acting chancellor to her successor, finance minister Olaf Scholz, who will also be attending and whom leaders will want to approach. But as the EU’s longest-serving leader, Merkel is no ordinary lame duck. The G-20 will miss someone known as a “compromise machine.” She remained neutral in the growing US-China standoff and saw the value in staying the course as the main interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin in spite of various provocations. Scholz has no such history of engagement with the Kremlin—and his future coalition partner, the Greens, have been openly hostile to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany.

France | Emmanuel Macron, The Humbled

The 43-year-old brings swagger to summits. At the G-7 he hosted in 2019, Macron gave Brazil a dressing down over deforestation in the Amazon. He courted then-US President Donald Trump and swung his arm around Biden at the G-7 this year in the UK, only to be stung by the submarine switch betrayal. Ties with the UK are at a low and some in Europe are uneasy about Macron’s ambitions to occupy the regional vacuum left by Merkel. The next six months will see him sucked into a reelection campaign against the far right. The Paris climate agreement was struck in 2015, before Macron came to power. It remains the benchmark, one that Macron will argue must be improved on.

Canada | Justin Trudeau, The Conflicted

Trudeau recently won a third term but presides over a minority government, one that made many climate pledges yet can’t wean itself off oil. Just this month his administration invoked a 44-year-old treaty to stop the US from shutting a pipeline. Reconciling his environmental goals with the country’s fundamental reliance on fossil fuels was never easy. But this time around critics will be looking for action, or it will be hard to shake off a sense of hypocrisy that dogs rich countries talking a big green game. 

Saudi Arabia | MBS, The Climate-Oil Strategist

The world’s largest oil exporter surprised many ahead of climate talks by pledging a net zero goal, showing that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman wants to be part of the global conversation on climate change even as he aims to keep the kingdom’s crude in the energy mix long-term. It’s the latest twist from the royal known as MBS, who has eased back into the limelight. The 2018 murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi (which he denied any role in), a crackdown on domestic political opposition and the Yemen war had strained ties with Western allies. Prince Mohammed is defacto ruler but his father, the Saudi king, could opt to lead the delegation remotely. It’s unclear still if the crown prince will attend in person. 

The Telling No-Shows | China and Russia 

It’s hard not to interpret the absence of both Putin and Xi Jinping as a snub in the efforts to reach a new climate deal given their combined clout. Along with the US and India, China and Russia are the worst polluters.

Covid-19 has given both a reason to stay home. Russia just imposed the toughest restrictions for months while Xi hasn’t left China in nearly two years. In truth, domestic politics make it imperative for Xi to hang back as he seeks to consolidate power ahead of a Communist Party leadership meeting next year.

Putin will miss the potential for a second in-person meeting with Biden following their summit in Geneva. The energy crunch has given the Russian leader a lever to seek a reprieve on sanctions by offering to boost supplies to gas-starved Europeans. There are, of course, strings attached as he seeks swift approval to begin shipments through the controversial NS2 pipeline that bypasses Ukraine.

Who else is not going? 

Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is sending his foreign minister in lieu while South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is staying put, keeping a close eye on local elections. The coal-dependent nation uses the fossil fuel to generate most of its electricity and while the government is committed to an energy transition it’s looking for bigger financial help to carry it out.

Japan’s Fumio Kishida will take part virtually as the summit comes during an election where his ruling party is expected to lose seats, but hold on to power with the help of its coalition partner. While his predecessor set the bold target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, the plan looks shaky because it depends on restarting most of the country’s nuclear reactors, something that frightens a public scarred by the Fukushima disaster a decade ago.

Is anyone else coming? 

Turkey | Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan has one goal in mind: some alone time with Biden to make his case to buy US warplanes. He’d wanted to have that conversation in Rome, but he will likely have to wait for COP26. His presence at the G-20 comes amid frictions with the West after Turkey threatened, and then dropped, a call for 10 ambassadors to be expelled from Ankara over their demand a government critic be released. Turkey is also prepping for further military action against US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. All this will make for uncomfortable conversations. 

Brazil | Jair Bolsonaro

The firebrand former army captain is in a tight spot. At home, his popularity has dived amid criticism of his handling of the pandemic and an inflation spike that has eroded income. He faces critics abroad over the Amazon. Latin America’s biggest economy also faces 2022 elections with polls showing leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the lead. Bolsonaro is a contradictory figure, presenting himself both as a climate mediator but also ready to pick up a fight. However, the fact he is skipping COP26 doesn’t bode well for the talks.

India | Narendra Modi

Will he or won’t he commit India to a net-zero target? India is one of the worst polluters but wants goals that take into account emissions per capita, a metric that plays in its favor given the tremendous size of its population. Modi will also be looking for tangible evidence that more money will come his way if he’s to commit (so far the signs aren’t encouraging). His other mission is to convince the world that India is open for business even as the full scale of its devastating death toll from Covid may never be known. Under him, Hindu nationalism has gained ground with a rise in religious identity politics that has concerned civil liberty activists.

Argentina | Alberto Fernandez

With midterm elections around the corner and with economic problems piling up, Fernandez will use the G-20 to try to get support for the complex renegotiation the country is undergoing with the International Monetary Fund. Specifically, Fernandez has been seeking other country members to back his proposal to reduce commissions paid for large IMF loans, with the nation owing the Washington-based fund more than $40 billion. A meeting with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva may take place on the sidelines of the summit.

South Korea | Moon Jae-in

A long-time proponent of reconciliation with North Korea, Moon’s final months in office are all about the elusive goal of permanent peace with the regime. In a visit to the Vatican, he’ll ask the pope to visit Pyongyang with a view to reviving talks with its ever-unpredictable leader Kim Jong Un.

Australia | Scott Morrison

The prime minister finally unveiled a plan for zero carbon emissions by 2050, but that target is not even going to be passed into law, prompting critics to call it “glossy and slick advertising with no substance.” That’s probably because Morrison has his sights on elections next year and needs to assuage voters, particularly those in coal-mining communities, that there will be no threat to rural jobs. Morrison, whom Biden referred to as that “fella Down Under” when announcing the submarine deal, might be more interested in working out the mechanics of that agreement with US and UK officials—out of Macron’s earshot, naturally.

Indonesia | Joko Widodo

The leader of Southeast Asia’s largest economy is set to take the reins of the G-20 presidency under the cloud of a stunted national agenda back home as Indonesia recovers from the pandemic. With an ambition of building a brand-new green capital in Borneo, he’ll arrive in Italy keen to show support for greening the economy. But a lower-than-expected carbon tax is not a good look, especially when, as the world’s top exporter of thermal coal, Indonesia benefits from sky-high prices. Bloomberg News

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