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The G7’s chance for a just climate transition

Mary Robinson is chair of The Elders and a former president of Ireland.

When the U.N.’s COP26 climate meeting concluded in Glasgow in November, I remarked on the “historically shameful dereliction of duty” seen from world leaders, many of whom had neglected to show up in the crisis mode required of them. 

Barely seven months later, the interconnectivity of crises facing the world today — from the war in Ukraine to soaring food and energy prices and climate breakdown — requires those same leaders to now show even greater urgency, even deeper solidarity. And yet, we still find many of them wanting.  

Against this backdrop, the G7 summit of world leaders currently underway in Elmau, Germany must be where rich nations finally deliver on the climate finance promises they have made. 

One of the encouraging announcements at Glasgow was the commitment made by the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, France and the European Union to provide $8.5 billion to South Africa, assisting in its transition to renewable energy in a way that protects coal miners and their communities. This unprecedented, innovative partnership has the potential to be a game-changer in how countries collaborate in tackling climate change. One that other nations can emulate as they too try to wean their economies off fossil fuels, while simultaneously safeguarding jobs and livelihoods. 

As is so often the case with high-profile financial commitments made in the media spotlight of global summits, however, the promised billions have yet to materialize. 

This week’s summit is the perfect opportunity to make these promises a reality. And this includes commitments to double funding for climate adaptation and dramatically boosting clean energy finance. 

The South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership (JET-P) with G7 nations is an example of what clean energy finance could look like. It seeks to help move the country off its 90-percent reliance on coal power, while re-skilling workers and supporting affected communities. It’s a test case in how to support the energy transition in emerging economies, in a way that leaves no one behind. 

If successful, JET-P could be a blueprint for other carbon-intensive nations, from Indonesia to India, which are watching developments with interest. And if the G7 and South Africa can’t make this deal work, the world will have missed a critical opportunity to demonstrate how it can rapidly phase out coal in the developing world — and the implications for global temperature rises could be catastrophic.  

Last month, together with several of my fellow Elders, I visited South Africa to discuss the just transition deal with President Cyril Ramaphosa and meet with grassroots members of his Presidential Climate Commission. I was struck by the enthusiasm of these civil society representatives for ensuring South Africa’s transition is a fair one, and the resolve shown by the president and his team to deliver. 

But this ambitious plan only succeeds if the “donor” nations make good on their side of the deal. And since the announcement in Glasgow, some of the G7 nations who committed funds seem to be recycling old commitments and rowing back on the type of finance they will provide. 

South Africa and other onlooking nations need to see it wasn’t just rhetoric in Glasgow. And the G7 summit is the ideal place for these leaders to show they understand the reality of what’s at stake. 

As the landmark International Energy Agency 2021 report states, the world’s projected energy use puts us on track for climate disaster. There must be no new coal, oil or gas production — in any region — if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And the richest nations need to urgently phase out fossil fuel use, while also supporting developing countries to quickly follow suit and roll out renewable energy at scale.  

Currently, the investment gap remains staggering, and private funds aren’t making their way to green energy projects fast enough. The G7 have backed a seven-fold increase in finance for clean energy in low- and middle-income countries by 2030, but what we need to see in Elmau is a concrete plan for how to get there. 

The South Africa transition partnership can be the vanguard of this urgent change. And such green energy deals, alongside their implications for climate justice, can be exemplars of the type of international agreements needed to build solidarity in the face of a world order in crisis.  

Progress on the South Africa deal in the coming months is crucial, and gives leaders the chance to show solidarity and leadership in the face of catastrophic climate change. Such leadership can’t come soon enough.

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