Nations pledge to fight global warming - but without specifics

Differences between major industrialized nations and developing countries are a stumbling block at a US-sponsored forum.

Luca Bruno/AP
A logo of the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy. Barack Obama and other leaders of the Group of Eight say their goal is to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Climate change experts say such an acknowledgement is significant because the G-8 has never pronounced itself on that temperature goal.

When former President Bill Clinton dropped in on the UN’s global-warming talks in Montreal in 2005, his message was simple: Whether you get a little or a lot accomplished here, when you get home, do something to reduce your country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

At this year’s summit of the world’s eight largest economies -- and particularly at a parallel meeting involving the world’s 17 largest greenhouse-gas emitters -- it appears that leaders aim to heed Mr. Clinton’s advice.

On Thursday, at the end of the US-sponsored Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, participants from developed and developing countries pledged to take prompt action to tackle their greenhouse-gas emissions. The aim: to hold global warming to 3.6 degrees or less compared with pre-industrial levels.

To be sure, the major-economies communiqué is devoid of specific reduction targets -- either long-term or medium-term for either bloc of countries. Many activists had hoped that leaders would agree to broad global targets at the meetings in L’Aquila, Italy.

This, they said, would help smooth the way for more-detailed negotiations during the remaining months before December’s UN-sponsored global climate summit in Copenhagen. There, negotiators hope to present world leaders with at least the broad-brush outlines of a new climate treaty for their approval.

With yet another opportunity to agree on global targets having come and gone without them, many are frustrated. “Public policy is not keeping up with what the science is telling us we must do,” said Reid Detchon, vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, in a statement.

Developed countries have insisted that developing nations agree to a global emissions-reduction target of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, implying an 80 percent cut for developed countries.

The G-8 included the percent cuts in its communiqué. But the G-8 also left unresolved the issue of what year to use as the basis for comparing before-and-after emissions: “...1990 or more recent years.”

And the 2050 date is so far off that developing countries say they won’t take such an agreement seriously unless developed countries also commit to aggressive mid-term targets for 2020 to ensure they would reach the 2050 goal. So far, developed countries haven’t been ready to do that.

“Here was an opportunity for more progress, but that would have required industrialized countries putting more on the table,” says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “I think many of them feel it’s too early to do that.” Mid-term targets, along with the contentious issue of climate-related aid to developing countries, “are bargaining chips and they don’t want to play those too early,” he says.

But some analysts say that by agreeing on the 3.6-degree F. climate goal, the G-8 and other major emitting economies implicitly recognized that they must act quickly to put themselves on emissions paths that will stand a decent chance of capping global warming at that level.

In the major-economies’ declaration, developed countries pledged to “take the lead” in “promptly undertaking robust...reductions in the mid-term consistent with our long-term objectives.” Developing countries agreed to “promptly undertake actions whose projected effects on emissions represent a meaningful deviation from business as usual.”

Given the past gap between the two groups, which combine to account for 80 percent of the globe’s greenhouse-gas emissions, “this is pretty significant,” says Sarah Ladislaw, a fellow in the energy and security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.


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