This week's meeting of the world's eight top economic powers is set to become a battle over whether future efforts to combat global warming will continue to require binding international commitments or turn the clock back to 1992, when nations agreed to a less rigorous approach that the international community has long since rejected as ineffective.
The choice came into stark relief with President Bush's May 31 call to build a new international framework for action on global warming. The framework would shape efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions after 2012, when the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's first five-year commitment period ends.
Under Mr. Bush's plan, the United States would gather leaders of 15 developed and developing nations that are the leading emitters of heat-trapping gases and the largest consumers of energy. Their objective: Develop a long-term emissions-reduction goal that, according to administration officials, is "aspirational" rather than binding. Countries would then develop their own sets of internal programs to achieve the overall goal.
Bush unveiled the plan on the eve of this year's Group of 8 summit, set to start Wednesday in Heiligendamm, Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will chair the meeting, has put out drafts of a final communiqué that commit G-8 members to doing their "fair share" to reach specific emissions goals by 2050.
Her effort is driven in no small part by three recent reports on global warming, its effects, and strategies for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel. The reports, which aim to inform policymakers as they craft ways to reduce human influence on climate, were issued earlier this year by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
During the run-up to the G-8 meeting, the Bush administration has come under intense criticism from environmental groups and some European officials. The White House rejected the wording of large sections of the draft's climate provisions. It argued that the offending elements run counter to Bush's policy on dealing with global warming.
For example, Washington's proposed changes to the draft G-8 document virtually wipe out any reference to various emissions-reduction goals by 2050 or an objective of trying to hold global average temperature increases to about 2 degrees C. These are based on IPCC projections of possible emissions trends and approaches that could avoid what the UN agreements refer to as "dangerous human-made influence on climate."
It would now appear that the White House may have been trying to adjust the draft communiqué text in ways that brought it into closer conformity with the plan Washington was preparing to announce. The White House has long rejected mandatory targets and timetables.
Fewer friends in US's corner
Either way, some analysts say, the Bush plan is merely trying to defuse the barrage of criticism aimed its way.
"This is a transparent effort to divert attention from the president's refusal to accept any emissions-reductions proposals at [the] G-8 summit," says Philip Clapp, head of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. "The White House is just trying to hide the fact that the president is completely isolated among the G-8 leaders by calling vaguely for some agreement next year, right before he leaves office."
As if to underscore that isolation, long-time Bush ally on climate, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, announced over the weekend that his country would set an emissions target next year and set up a carbon-trading system by 2012 to help achieve it. Both approaches have been anathema to the White House.
Others suggest the White House is attempting an end-run around any United Nations-based process for dealing with climate. Sigmar Gabriel, the German environment minister, said Friday that the G-8 should not allow the Bush plan to become "a Trojan horse to get past Heiligendamm and basically torpedo the international climate-protection process."
Some, though, say Washington's approach in the end may help prod a ponderous UN process. While setting an "aspirational" goal might seem out of touch with calls for binding commitments, environmental treaties often set a broad goal, which is turned into action through each country's process of ratification and enacting enabling legislation, said James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at a May 31 press briefing. Citing fisheries agreements as an example, he noted that, "You agree on goals in the international process [and] you implement them through national strategies that include binding measures."
Such an approach could be attractive to rapidly growing countries such as India and China, which say binding commitments could unfairly place a drag on their economic growth. Both the Kyoto Protocol and its parent document, the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, acknowledge that developed countries have a responsibility to move first on global warming. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the cumulative emissions these countries have pumped into the air are responsible for rising global average temperatures, scientists say.
But all parties agree that for emissions controls to be truly effective, countries such as China, India, and Brazil must be brought into the process. Beijing is slated to release on Monday its own climate-change strategy in advance of attending the G-8 meeting as an observer.
"The acid test of Heiligendamm will be getting the unconstrained powers to commit" beyond 2012, says John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group at the University of Toronto. "They don't have to define the nature of the post-Kyoto regime, but it is fundamentally important that they agree to do something."
The flexibility of the US proposal, he suggests, "is more to bring the unconstrained on board."
Some US specifics
While some have complained that the US plan is vague, it has one very specific target – the 18-month time frame for coming up with provisions that are more specific, Mr. Kirton says. This is key because Bush will still be president then, he says. In his view Bush is not, as some observers see it, stalling until he is out of office.
The Bush administration is not alone in its thinking. In 2005, the nonpartisan Pew Center on Global Climate Change published recommendations for making progress toward a post-Kyoto 2012 agreement. The report was based on discussions the group had with government and business representatives from 15 countries, including the leading emitters.
Among the options the group outlined: setting up an informal dialogue to develop a consensus on what to do beyond 2012 and allowing countries to take different tacks to meeting binding commitments. Both are reflected in the Bush plan.
But the plan also differs in at least two key aspects, notes Elliot Diringer, Pew's director of international strategies. Unlike the Bush strategy, he says, diverse approaches must be part of "a system of commitments" through an overarching international agreement. "You allow for different types of commitments, but they need to be commitments," he says. The Bush plan, at least in its current form, remains only a voluntary one where it matters most, he continues. "We've tried the voluntary approach here at home and internationally, and it hasn't worked," he says.And while the president's proposal focuses on medium- and long-term goals, near-term goals are vital, too, Mr. Diringer says. "For this administration, this new plan is a step forward. But it falls well short of what's needed." Still, some European analysts see reason for hope in the Bush plan."There was a stalemate just a few days ago because Bush was saying, 'I can't agree to most of the terms of the proposal on the table.' Now he is acknowledging that there is a need for long-term targets, that he takes the whole climate problem seriously, and that he is willing to work with other countries do something about it," says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a key adviser to Chancellor Merkel on environmental issues. "We are all in the run-up to a really new regime, and if that regime is tailored by the Americans, that would be most welcome."