G-8 summit isolates US on climate change

As Bush pushes for voluntary measures, other members endorse goal of halving greenhouse emissions by 2050.

What has emerged from this week's G-8 summit about the issue of global warming is one of the most explicit agreements to disagree that has appeared in a final communiqué.

This is some analysts' assessment after leaders of the world's eight most-powerful economies issued their joint statement Thursday.

Despite strong pushback from the Bush administration, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had warned that she would brook no watered-down words on climate change when this year's summit ended. It appears that Mrs. Merkel, the chair of this year's meeting, has held true to her word.

In the communiqué, the European Union, Japan, and Canada set a goal of reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases from cars, factories, and power plants by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This implicitly accepts the notion that countries should reduce emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels – to levels that hold the increase in global average temperatures to about 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F.) over preindustrial levels.

"The most substantial achievement is that these nations will very seriously consider decreasing greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2050. This is not yet a final decision, but the ambition has been quantified, which is much more than we had hoped for. The door toward a major commitment is now fully open," says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Merkel's chief environmental adviser.

But the White House walked away with several of its presummit positions intact, notes Alex Lennon, codirector of the climate project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. It commits only to considering "seriously" the emissions target and timetable that the EU, Japan, and Canada say they will strive for. The White House also saw its emphasis on long-term action retained, at the expense of proposed language that included short-term goals for improving energy efficiency.

In addition, the G-8 welcomed a US offer to host talks later this year among the 15 largest greenhouse-gas emitters to work toward a new climate-change agreement that would take over after 2012, when the first five-year commitment period ends under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

"This is a least-common-denominator process," Dr. Lennon says. "My reading of the communiqué is that the US is leading the process. It looks much more like the proposal President Bush announced last Thursday than it does the European objectives beforehand."

There were just a few real areas of agreement: that a new climate treaty should be negotiated by 2009 and that it should take place under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 1992 agreement that set a target for emissions reductions among industrial countries but did not include binding commitments to meet the targets. The framework's failure to achieve emissions reductions led world leaders to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, which includes binding commitments for industrial nations.

Yet some read the communiqué to suggest that the rest of the G-8, particularly the EU, Japan, and Britain, have one-upped the United States in the effort to engage developing countries in discussions about a post-Kyoto regime. Five of the largest developing countries, whose rising emissions are of increasing concern, attended the meeting as observers.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Merkel "have started to create a consensus among the other G-8 countries and the five largest developing countries on the framework for a new agreement to be reached in 2009," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. He notes that Canada also agreed to be included among the countries supporting a specific long-term emissions goal. "[The leaders have] started to create the consensus necessary for a new US president to come to the table in January 2009 and reach an agreement by that November."

Exactly what that president might agree to is an open question, cautions Lennon of the CSIS. Among many Republicans and many members of the business community, he says, there remains a strong preference for voluntary standards, concerns that emissions reductions would harm the economy in ways that obstruct the development of new technologies needed to fight global warming, and a dislike of mandatory emissions-trading schemes.

"There is a potential misperception that Bush is holding up the agenda," he says. "This was true up until two years ago. He was sticking to the idea that the science wasn't strong enough and that we couldn't be sure humans were causing the problem. But that's gone by this summit. Now it's a question about the means, between emissions reductions and developing new technologies."

The two are not mutually exclusive, he acknowledges. But, he adds, fears remain about sharp reductions costing economies the wealth needed to develop technologies that could help later.

The communiqué reveals other differences in strategy, he says. The EU appears to be focusing on an all-inclusive approach, "where all the countries in the world have to reach an agreement similar to the Kyoto Protocol," Lennon says. The US, instead, is trying to set up "what I would call a coalition of the necessary."

Whatever the strategy, the next venue for working through these differences and continuing the effort to engage developing countries in a post-Kyoto agreements appears to be Bali, where the next round of annual UN-sponsored climate talks is scheduled to take place in December.

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