What is the G7 for? Experts weigh in on the effectiveness of member countries making summit commitments

G7 leaders have made a number of commitments on climate, vaccines and poverty at the 2021 Cornwall summit – but how binding are their promises?

Since the first meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) in 1975, annual leaders’ meetings have seen member countries make hundreds of commitments on everything from solving global conflicts to tackling world poverty.

G7 leaders’ talks take place on an annual basis, while other meetings with more specific agendas occur throughout the year.

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But how bound are G7 countries to the commitments they make on climate, conflict and other global issues?

Protest groups like Extinction Rebellion have condemned the G7 as a "failure" on commitments to mitigating climate change.
Protest groups like Extinction Rebellion have condemned the G7 as a "failure" on commitments to mitigating climate change.

‘Political outliers can undermine commitments’

While the commitments aren’t always legally binding they are “politically binding”, says John Kirton, co-founder of the G7 Research Group, who track G7 countries’ progress on delivering their promises.

The intensely public nature of these political commitments means that “pressure groups will use them to hold G7 leaders and governments accountable”, says Nigel Sizer, Chief Global Alliances Officer with Rainforest Alliance.

He gives the example that “if [governments] promise two billion vaccine doses for poor countries by the end of 2022 then that can be monitored easily. There would be a lot of explaining to do if they do not deliver.”

In spite of being politically-binding, however, Guy Howard, researching environmental and infrastructure resilience at Bristol University, points out that “occasional political outliers like Donald Trump can completely undermine the collective commitment [of the G7].”

Other countries, meanwhile, may “decide they simply don’t want to deliver commitments subsequent to them being made.”

For environmental charities like Go Dharmic, G7 commitments are often frustratingly vague, leaving action open-ended and thus open to delay:

“In terms of compliance with commitments, they’ll have a much greater success when the wording isn’t so vague. They’ll say ‘we’ll do this as soon as possible’ rather than stating dates or numbers,” Hemal Randerwala, CEO of social action charity Go Dharmic said.

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Who monitors compliance?

The G7 attempts to monitor its own progress on commitments in “selective, largely secret accountability reports,” said John.

While these may not be available to the public, the G7 Research Group - which sits independently from the G7 itself - has been monitoring progress since 1996 and is acknowledged as the most authoritative body on checking member countries’ compliance.

At times, countries will put commitments made in G7 meetings into law, meaning they are accountable to their own country’s legal system. For the most part, however, the commitments are simply politically binding.

“We should not under-estimate the importance of such political commitment,” said Guy, pointing out that these often translate into action under other international mechanisms.

Do member countries always comply with commitments?

Compliance with the commitments has risen since 1975, according to analysis by the G7 Research Group.

Last year, compliance reached an unprecedentedly high level of 94%, according to the group.

However, this isn't always true of commitments made at other G7 meetings.

Assessing 35 commitments made by G7 environment ministers between 1992 and 2020, the G7 research group discovered that, in the year after these pledges were made, the overall compliance averaged at just 51%.

What will this year’s commitments be - and will they go far enough?

This year’s commitments are likely to include a promise to deliver more coronavirus vaccines worldwide, as well as a call for a fresh inquiry into the pandemic’s origins.

One major subject on the agenda is climate change, on which Nigel hopes to see “greater commitments on targets by G7 countries themselves to reduce emissions” as well as “increased financial support for the global south.”

While Guy also anticipates more commitments around climate change and “hopefully a way of applying pressure on others, particularly China”, he points out that “whether these goals are ambitious or not is a different question.”

Many are concerned, in fact, that climate commitments made at the G7 will not go far enough to prevent the climate crisis accelerating to manageable levels.

“Commitments will not go as far as the science demands,” Nigel said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Hemal, who was disappointed over the lack of concrete commitments from G7 countries to drive down emissions.

“Personally, I don't think it's enough. I think the wording [in commitments] is still not strong enough,” he said.

“I don’t feel personally inspired by the messaging or the wording [from leaders], they’re not acknowledging that this is number one on the agenda for all of us.”