In theory, the world’s largest industrialized democracies have agreed to stop using fossil fuels within a little over a quarter-century and to switch to new sources of power such as solar and wind as fast as they can.
But as leaders of the Group of 7 gathered in Hiroshima, Japan, this weekend for their annual meeting, some countries were wrangling over whether to loosen commitments to phase out the use of carbon-emitting fuels like gas and coal in time to avert the worst effects of global warming.
The final communiqué from the summit, released on Saturday afternoon, included language sought by Japan that blesses continued investment in certain types of coal-fired power plants that the Japanese government is helping to finance. But leaders only modestly modified language from last year’s meeting that supported some new investment in natural gas infrastructure. Germany, which pushed for the endorsement in 2022 as it scrambled to replace Russian gas imports in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, had sought to broaden the wording this year.
The behind-the-scenes battle underscored the political, economic and practical challenges that many Group of 7 nations have run into as they seek to accelerate a global energy transition with trillions of dollars in government incentives.
Jarred by the invasion of Ukraine, countries in Europe are seeking to quickly secure sources of natural gas to keep the lights on. At the same time, countries like Japan and even to some degree the United States are seeking to protect longstanding investments in the fossil fuel industry at home or abroad.
The United States and its allies have moved quickly over the last year to incentivize investments in wind and solar power, electric vehicles, technology to aid energy efficiency and other measures meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global temperature rise. At the same time, they have taken what officials call temporary but crucial measures to keep fossil fuels flowing to global markets, both to avert an electricity crisis in Europe and to hold down gasoline prices around the world.
Those efforts include a price-cap measure for Russian oil that was being hailed as a success at the meetings this weekend. The cap effectively allows Russia to continue exporting oil, but at a discount; keeping its crude on the market has helped to hold down global gasoline prices.
But tensions have flared in the coalition over efforts by some countries to lock in their access to fossil fuels for decades to come. According to three people familiar with the discussions, the German government, concerned about securing enough energy to power its economy, pushed in Hiroshima to loosen the language that leaders released last year just months after the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The 2022 communiqué endorsed public investment in gas, but only in “exceptional circumstances” and as a “temporary response” to relieve nations from dependency on Russian energy. Any expansion, the statement said, should not derail nations from their pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The 2023 statement repeated that language and did not go much further.
“It is necessary to accelerate the phaseout of our dependency on Russian energy, including through energy savings and gas demand reduction, in a manner consistent with our Paris commitments,” it read, referring to the landmark Paris climate agreement, “and address the global impact of Russia’s war on energy supplies, gas prices and inflation, and people’s lives, recognizing the primary 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 own ambitious climate change agenda and aiding other United States allies intent on increasing their access to fossil fuels.
The sudden promotion of such fuels has alarmed environmental activists who say that endorsing public investment in gas is incompatible with the pledge nations made in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021 to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.
“The G7 must clearly state how they intend to keep the 1.5 degree Celsius limit alive and spur on a global shift to clean energy,” said Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland. “This is a moment. The climate crisis is upon us.”
Britain and France argue that the immediate energy crisis has passed and that Europe has averted a potential power shortage this winter. Germany has already built its first liquefied natural gas terminal and is hoping to build more.
Japan also has an interest in further natural gas development. During a meeting of environment ministers from Group of 7 nations in Sapporo, Japan, last month, Japanese representatives pushed the group to permit further investment in developing gas fields in Asia, according to environmental activists.
An official in the Japanese foreign ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Japan, which relies on energy imports, needed natural gas for its energy security and also wanted to help other countries use liquefied natural gas as a way to transition away from coal.
Kaname Ogawa, director of the electricity infrastructure division at the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry, said that Japan was committed overall to reducing its reliance on natural gas, but that it had sought new contracts to import gas as others had expired. Liquefied natural gas accounts for more than a third of Japan’s power generation, and close to 10 percent of that gas comes from Russia.
Japan already pushed hard at the Sapporo meeting to prevent the environment ministers from committing the Group of 7 to a firm date for phasing out coal. Unlike the other countries in the grouping, Japan, which derives close to 30 percent of its energy from coal, refused to sign on to a 2030 date for bringing that down to zero.
“Our electricity structure differs significantly from other countries,” Mr. Ogawa said. “We will introduce renewables and we will increase non-fossil fuels as much as possible, but at the same time, in order to maintain our electricity security, we have to continue to use” coal.
The government is financing efforts to use ammonia in coal-fired plants to make them more efficient, a technology it has marketed as “clean coal.” The communiqué on Saturday specifically cited ammonia and said such efforts “should be developed and used, if this can be aligned with a 1.5 degrees Celsius pathway, where they are impactful as effective emission reduction tools to advance decarbonization across sectors and industries.”
Activists worry that Japan’s timeline for developing its ammonia technology is too long for it to help with climate goals.
“The new technology cannot come in a timely manner in order to achieve a 2030 coal phaseout timeline,” said Kimiko Hirata, founder of Climate Integrate, an advocacy group. “It will be developed and deployed only after 2030, so this technology is not compatible with the 1.5 degree goal.”
That goal will not be achievable if countries continue to develop new sources of fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. The atmosphere has already warmed 1.1 degrees above preindustrial levels and is hurtling toward that planetary boundary.
In a “clean energy economy action plan” released on Saturday, the Group of 7 acknowledged “that there are various pathways according to each country’s energy situation, industrial and social structures, and geographical conditions.”
A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration was insisting on “no climate backsliding” in the gas investment language. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said public funding for gas infrastructure should be allowed only in “narrow circumstances” and should still be consistent with countries’ plans to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere before 2050.
Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Hiroshima, Japan.