In theory, the world’s largest industrialized democracies have agreed to phase out fossil fuels and switch to new energy sources such as solar and wind as quickly as possible within a little over a quarter of a century.
But as leaders of the Group of Seven gathered for their annual meeting this weekend in Hiroshima, Japan, some countries were at odds over whether to ease their commitments to phase out carbon-emitting fuels like gas and coal in a timely manner should be taken to avert the worst effects of global warming.
The summit’s final communiqué, released Saturday afternoon, included Japan-sought language that advocates further investment in certain types of coal-fired power plants that the Japanese government is helping to fund. But leaders have changed their wording only slightly from last year’s meeting, which endorsed some new investments in natural gas infrastructure. Germany, which was pushing for approval in 2022 as it struggled to replace Russian gas imports after invading Ukraine, had attempted to expand on the wording this year.
The behind-the-scenes battle highlighted the political, economic and practical challenges facing many Group of Seven countries as they seek to accelerate the global energy transition through trillions of dollars in government stimulus.
Rocked by the invasion of Ukraine, countries in Europe are scrambling to quickly secure gas wells to keep the electricity going. At the same time, countries like Japan and to some extent even the United States are trying to protect longstanding investments in the domestic and foreign fossil fuel industry.
The United States and its allies have acted swiftly over the past year to incentivize investment in wind and solar power, electric vehicles, energy-efficiency technology and other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global temperature rise. At the same time, they have taken so-called temporary but crucial measures to keep fossil fuels flowing into world markets, both to avert an electricity crisis in Europe and to keep gasoline prices low around the world.
Those efforts include a price cap on Russian oil, which was hailed as a success at this weekend’s meetings. The cap effectively allows Russia to continue exporting oil, albeit at a discount; Keeping the crude oil market alive has helped keep global gasoline prices down.
But tensions have arisen in the coalition over efforts by some countries to cut off their access to fossil fuels for decades to come. According to three people familiar with the discussions, the German government in Hiroshima was pushing to relax the language that leaders released last year, just months after Russia’s war against Ukraine began, because they were worried enough Secure energy to power their economy.
The 2022 communiqué endorsed public investment in gas, but only under “extraordinary circumstances” and as a “temporary response” to free nations from dependence on Russian energy. An extension, the statement said, must not pull nations back on their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Declaration of 2023 repeated this formulation and did not go much further.
“There is a need to accelerate the exit from our dependence on Russian energy, including through energy savings and gas demand reductions, in line with our Paris commitments,” it said, referring to the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, “and addressing global challenges “The impact of the Russian war on energy supplies, gas prices and inflation, and people’s lives, recognizing the overriding need to accelerate the clean energy transition.”
Britain and France fought the German effort. The Biden administration found itself caught between defending the president’s ambitious climate change agenda and supporting other allies of the United States looking to increase their access to fossil fuels.
The sudden promotion of such fuels has alarmed environmental campaigners, who say advocating public investment in gas is inconsistent with the pledge made in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above sea level to limit pre-industrial levels.
“The G7 must be clear on how they intend to maintain the 1.5 degree Celsius target and drive a global clean energy transition,” said Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland. “This is a moment. The climate crisis is just around the corner.”
Britain and France argue that the immediate energy crisis is over and Europe has averted a possible power shortage this winter. Germany has already built its first LNG terminal and hopes to build more.
Japan is also interested in further natural gas development. According to environmental activists, at a meeting of Group of Seven environment ministers last month in Sapporo, Japan, Japanese officials urged the group to allow further investment in gas field development in Asia.
A Japanese foreign ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Japan, which relies on imported energy, needs natural gas for its energy security and also wants to help other countries use liquefied natural gas as a way off coal.
Kaname Ogawa, director of the Department of Electricity Infrastructure at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said Japan is overall committed to reducing its reliance on natural gas but has been scrambling for new gas import contracts as others have expired. LNG accounts for more than a third of Japan’s electricity generation, and nearly 10 percent of that gas comes from Russia.
Japan already pushed hard at the Sapporo meeting to prevent environment ministers from giving the Group of Seven a firm date for the coal phase-out. Unlike the rest of the group, Japan, which gets nearly 30 percent of its energy from coal, refused to commit to a 2030 date to bring that figure down to zero.
“Our power structure is significantly different from that of other countries,” Mr. Ogawa said. “We will adopt renewable energy and increase non-fossil fuels as much as possible, but at the same time, to maintain our electricity security, we must continue to use” coal.
The government is funding efforts to use ammonia in coal-fired power plants to make them more efficient, a technology it markets as “clean coal.” Saturday’s communiqué specifically mentioned ammonia and said such efforts “should be developed and used where this can be aligned with a 1.5 degree Celsius path, where they are effective as effective tools to reduce emissions.” to drive decarbonization across sectors and industries.”
Activists fear Japan’s timeframe for developing its ammonia technology is too long to help meet climate goals.
“The new technology cannot be rolled out in time to meet the 2030 coal phase-out timeline,” said Kimiko Hirata, founder of Climate Integrate, an advocacy group. “It will only be developed and used after 2030, so this technology is not compatible with the 1.5 degree target.”
According to the International Energy Agency, this goal will not be achievable if countries continue to develop new sources of fossil fuels. The atmosphere has already warmed by 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels and is racing towards the limits of our planet.
In a “Clean Energy Industry Action Plan” released on Saturday, the Group of Seven acknowledged “there are different paths depending on each country’s energy situation, industrial and social structures and geographic conditions.”
A senior US official said the Biden administration insisted on “no climate regression” in gas investment language. The official, who remained anonymous on the condition, said public funding for gas infrastructure should only be allowed under “limited circumstances” and still be consistent with countries’ plans to halt the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere before 2050.
Hikari Hida provided coverage from Hiroshima, Japan.
Motoko Rich, Lisa Friedman and Jim Tankersley