Meeting for a second day in the Japanese resort town of Toyako, the leaders of the G-8 nations released a declaration on climate change, endorsing the idea of cutting global greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2050. It was the clearest signal yet of the international community's willingness to grapple with the long-term danger of global warming, which threatens to change the face of the planet if nations don't shift to a low-carbon economy. Politicians at the summit were pleased. "The science is clear, the economic case for action is stronger than ever," said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. "This is a strong signal to the citizens of the world."
Barroso would be right if this were 2000, and not 2008. But a year after the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) laid out an alarming case for drastic action, and a month after the U.S. Senate began serious debate on sharply cutting American carbon emissions, the G-8's fuzzy-minded statement falls far short of what's needed from the world. Despite pressure from major developing nations attending the summit (who argue that industrialized countries need to act first on global warming), the G-8 refused to set short-term emissions-cut targets. The G-8 didn't even specify which base year it would use as the starting point for cutting emissions in half either 1990, the year used for the Kyoto Protocol, or the present day. "There's no way to judge the target against any real number," says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is not something that makes you stay up at night." The only strong signal the G-8 declaration sends is that the world is still not ready to act.
The outcome of the G-8 summit is especially disappointing though not surprising to greens because there were signs in the lead-up to the summit that real progress might be made. The essential standoff in international climate negotiations is the division of responsibility between developed nations like the U.S. historically, the biggest carbon emitters and big developing nations like China, set to become the major carbon emitters. The U.S. under President George W. Bush in particular has insisted that since developing nations will be responsible for the vast majority of future carbon emissions, no climate agreement can work without mandatory action from poorer countries. Developing nations insist that rich nations need to go first, hence the standoff that has largely frozen international action on climate change for the past several years.
But in anticipation of the G-8 summit, major developing nations, including China and India, made it clear that they would be willing to accept "significant deviations from business as usual" meaning they would take action to reduce the expected growth of their carbon emissions in the future. In exchange, they demanded that developed nations agree to cut their own carbon emissions by 25% to 40% by 2020. The proposal was a meaningful change from past negotiations, when developing nations routinely refused to contemplate any kind of limit on their growth. "The fact that they put this on the table is very significant," says Schmidt.
Although the European nations in the G-8 were in favor of the proposal and have long been pushing for stricter medium-term targets, the U.S. along with Canada, Australia and host nation Japan torpedoed the plan in favor of the more vague long-term goal. (Canada and Japan are original signatories to the Kyoto Protocol unlike the U.S. and Australia but both have drifted away from the European nations on climate change in recent years.) That's a disappointment, not just because of the missed opportunity to engage developing nations. Without the signpost of a medium-term target, a vague promise to cut emissions more than four decades from now is unlikely to unleash the kind of economy-changing investments needed to truly combat climate change. "It says nothing specific about what the developed countries will do between now and 2020, and says that developing countries should commit to binding measures in a new treaty," says Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group. "The question about that language is if that is enough to convince developing countries to adopt a long-term target because it is very vague language."
We're running out of time to be vague on climate change. On Wednesday the world's 16 top carbon emitters will meet in Japan to further hash out climate-change action, under President Bush's major emitters process, but don't expect any more progress. If nothing else, this G-8 summit Bush's last in office made it clear that we can't expect any change from the U.S. until a new President is in office. Both John McCain and Barack Obama back stronger action, but a successor to the Kyoto Protocol needs to be negotiated by the end of 2009. That will leave the new Administration less than a year to prepare not much time as far as complex international treaties go. The U.S. will be ready to play but by then, the game might be almost over.