G8 Declares a Lack of Promise

Greenpeace activists paint "G8 FAILED" on the side of the coal-carrying ship South African ship, Gallia Graeca, in Civitavecchia, near Rome July 10, 2009. Further south, activists paint the message "stupid" to G8 leaders on the facade of the Brindisi power plant chimney. Greenpeace has occupied five Italian coal plants this week, calling on the G8 to take the lead on climate. REUTERS/Greenpeace

G8 Declares a Lack of Promise

L'AQUILA, Italy - The G8 summit is no climate change meeting, and not formally associated in any sense with the series of negotiating meetings leading up to the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December. But the outcome of a G8 sponsored forum on climate change should get environmentalists worried about any outcome in Copenhagen.

The Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate produced a declaration at the G8 summit in this Italian city Thursday. It was a declaration of words, not numbers. It included no commitments, no requirements for anyone on how much should be cut in terms of emissions and when. Because when they talked numbers, they failed to agree.

And the Major Economies Forum (MEF) is about as representative as you could get. It includes the G8 members (the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia), the G5 major developing countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa) plus Australia, Indonesia, South Korea and the EU. In short, every player in the thick of the conflict over negotiations.

And was there conflict. The developed nations pressed for those two sets of number targets that have been going the rounds: that developing countries make a quantitative commitment to cutting emissions by 2050, or commit to action necessary to limit temperature rise to less than two degrees this century.

Developing nations came up with a 2020 target. First, they argued, industrialised countries should agree to - and undertake - a 40 percent reduction by 2020, related to 1990 levels. The U.S. has pledged to aim for a 17 percent cut by 2020, relative to 2005 levels.

On the negotiating table those two positions turned out to be as far apart as the North and South Poles. Evidently, the climate is changing a good deal more than positions on climate change.

And so what was not agreed stood invisibly underlined in the agreement produced by the MEF. The most the document had was an acknowledgement of some principles that will inform negotiations - or a failure in negotiations.

A response to climate change, it was agreed, must "respect the priority of economic and social development of developing countries." And the declaration secured the agreement of industrialised countries to the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities. A celebration of that inclusion will be heard by some as a warning bell that this will now be used as ammunition in prolonged battles of words to resist commitments by developing countries.

The differences at the MEF, and these are certain to represent and inform differences at the climate talks proper, were over the degree of differentiation of responsibilities. The positions stood alarmingly far apart, when December is not that far off at all.

The agreement here was on "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" that would be subject to "applicable measurement, reporting and verification." Who knows what numbers any given country considers appropriate. And if they fall short, never mind; not a word on what happens then.

Developing nations, it was agreed, "will promptly undertake actions whose projected effect on emissions represent a meaningful deviation from business as usual in the mid-term, in the context of sustainable development, supported by financing, technology and capacity building."

The peaking of emissions, it was agreed, should take place "as soon as possible," recognising that "the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries, bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities in developing countries."

The 17 countries agreed that they "recognise the scientific view" that temperature rise should be less than two degrees, and that they will "identify a global goal" for "reducing global emissions by 2050." The world waits, not very hopefully.

There is a logic to arguing that the emissions in the air leading to global warming and consequently climate change came heavily from industrialised countries - the rich ones that is. And that they must expect to pay for their sins. And that millions cannot be instructed under an international agreement to stay poor because the rich failed to do the right thing at the right time. But this might well turn out to be a good argument that produces a bad result.

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