G-8 as climate change forum: baby steps

Leaders agreed that warming must be stopped, but few specifics were reached on how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Eric Feferberg, Pool/AP
From left, US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso pose for a G8, G5 and Egypt family photo, at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, Thursday.

The Group of 8 summit in Italy, which turned largely into a climate change conference in the past 48 hours – agreed to limit global warming to an average of 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees F).

While that is seen as a significant step forward, there was no agreement yet on specific short-term moves to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 – something insiders considered politically unrealistic ahead of the meeting.

The G-8 "was a giant leap for the US, and one small step for mankind," says Bastian Hermisson of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, a think tank aligned with the Green Party, in describing US climate policy shift from the Bush to Obama administrations. At the G-8 last year in Japan, after many years of disagreement with global warming initiatives, dating to the Kyoto Protocols, and with much consternation in European states – the Bush White House agreed on a 50 percent reduction in gases by 2050. [EDITOR'S NOTE: In Japan last year, the US did not agree to a specific base year from which to make a 50 percent reduction.]

The G-8 summit of the largest industrial nations, often focuses on economic issues, and the first day there was discussion of the global recession. But by Thursday, this G-8 (joined by five key emerging nations) was being described as an important forum for climate change. Still, the world's leaders are leaving much to be decided at a September G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, and a major climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, at year's end.

Will China and Brazil set new targets?

The climate issue came sharply into focus after the White House invited China, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico to participate in order to ramp up collaboration on an ambitious and elusive effort to tackle one of the globe's top problems.

China, India, and Brazil, however, could not agree to the 50-to-80-percent reduction in emissions targets by 2050 set out last year. India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, agreed that halting climate change is a global responsibility but said his nation could not accept targets that would result in "perpetuating poverty."

Brazil's climate negotiator Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado threw down a challenge to G-8 nations to commit to "intermediate goals" in reduction – something the US has not yet achieved, though a climate bill is pending in Congress – in order for the rest of the world to accept the "credibility" of the effort.

The leading G-8 nations agreed that world temperatures that are heating up due to carbon and other gases released by the increased industrialization across the planet should not be allowed to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius.

"After a long struggle, all of the G-8 nations have finally accepted the 2-degree goal," said German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Will emerging nations get financial assistance?

The US role in throwing its weight behind the 2-degree reduction in global warming set an affirmative context for the Pittsburgh and Copenhagen meetings, analysts said. However without short- and mid-term targets in greenhouse-gas reduction, the 2-degree target could end up being illusory.

Going forward, the central dynamic in climate change reduction is likely to be between Beijing and Washington – and solving the issue of financial assistance to emerging nations willing to commit to targets.

"If China agrees," Mr. Hermisson argues, "it will be very difficult for India and Brazil not to."

The US Senate has before it a major piece of legislation, "The American Clean Energy and Security Act," sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California. The bill would require a 17 percent reduction of gases by 2020 – and offers some $600 million in clean-energy technology support. The bill, supported by the Obama administration, passed the House with less of a margin than expected – and may face a tough fight in the Senate.

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