The Next Move on Global Warming

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Marco Urban / Atlaspress

President Bush meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, June 6, 2007.

Less than a week after he announced that his Administration was ready to embrace long-term international action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, President George W. Bush assumed his usual role on climate change at this week's G8 summit: roadblock-in-chief. Chancellor Angela Merkel of host nation Germany had hoped to win approval for specifically targeted reductions on greenhouse gases—50% cuts by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, with the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than two degrees centigrade—but that effort seemed doomed before climate change came up on the G8's agenda this afternoon.

Though Merkel said on Thursday afternoon that the G8 had agreed to "substantial cuts" in emissions, Bush told reporters earlier: "What you won't get—and there was never a question of this—was the 50%." In other words: not gonna happen.

Instead, the U.S. has pushed to open up further negotiations that will embrace major carbon emitters—including big developing countries like India and China—and promote flexible goals for cutting emissions that would vary from nation to nation, instead of binding targets such as those laid out by the Kyoto Protocol. (The Kyoto Protocol, which doesn't include the U.S., India or China, expires in 2012.) Environmentalists were quick to blame Bush for stifling meaningful international efforts to address climate change. "This is a clear failure of responsibility," says Daniel Mittler, climate policy analyst for Greenpeace. "Bush is not putting anything on the table but hot air." But while the President seems to remain frustratingly unaware of the growing global consensus for immediate action on climate change, he may be on the right track—providing he's willing to back his recent green rhetoric with firm action.

Though the G8 represents most of the world's economic and political power, the group is responsible for less than half of current global greenhouse gas emissions — about 40%—and that percentage will decrease rapidly as energy use in developing nations skyrockets. According to projections by the International Energy Agency, China may pass the U.S. as the world's leading carbon emitter as early as this year, and if Beijing does nothing to slow its emissions, the country could produce more greenhouse gases during the next 25 years than the world's richest 26 countries—including the entire G8—combined. It will be wonderful if the G8 nations actually make substantial emissions cuts, but as Bush told reporters on June 6: "If China is not part of the process, we all can make major strides and yet there won't be a reduction, until China and India are participants."

That doesn't let the U.S. or other industrialized countries off the hook.They are still responsible for most of the carbon already in the atmosphere. But it does underline the fact that Beijing and New Delhi have to be at the table for any major global warming negotiations The G8, an institution born in the Cold War before the rise of India and China, isn't the best place to hammer out that kind of deal, where the environment competes with defense and economic issues for space on the agenda. But neither are unwieldy U.N. climate change meetings, where it's too easy for blocs of small nations—many of whom are negligible carbon emitters—to gum up negotiations.

Instead, we could create something like the E8, an idea recently put forward by Todd Stern of the American Center for Progress and William Antholis of the Brookings Institution. Made up of eight of the world's biggest carbon emitters—from the developed and the developing worlds—the E8 would be an annual summit of leaders devoted solely to addressing environmental threats, a kind of "ecological board of directors" for the globe, according to Stern and Antholis. It would ideally be big enough to include all the major environmental stakeholders, but small enough for fast, decisive action—exactly what the G8 was created for over 30 years ago.

In his climate change speech on June 1, Bush called for something similar: negotiations to be held by the end of 2008 that would include the world's 15 top carbon emitters and set nation-by-nation programs for slowing emissions, under a common long-term goal for cuts. Under such a plan, it would be potentially easier to get all major emitters on board, by allowing each nation to chart its own path to reduced emissions.

That's vital, because if you think Bush is an obstacle to cutting carbon, Beijing and New Delhi are likely to prove even more obstinate. China on June 4 released its long-awaited climate change strategy, but the plan was relatively disappointing. Beijing is focusing on energy efficiency—it has already fallen behind a goal to improve efficiency 20% by 2010—while emphasizing that it won't commit to specific emissions reductions targets. Sound familiar?

In Washington, at least, there's a good chance that by 2009 a new Administration might be willing to make the firm cuts that Bush won't. There's little chance of such a change of heart in India or China. By giving them more flexibility, Bush's strategy could well be more acceptable than a second Kyoto Protocol of fixed emissions cuts, and a humbler plan embraced by the globe would be more effective than a stricter one that leaves out major emitters. The U.S. "can serve as a bridge between nations who believe now is the time to come up with a set goal" and "those who are reluctant to participate in the dialogue," Bush told reporters on June 6.

One problem: there's virtually nothing in Bush's record on climate change to indicate that he'll be a very solid bridge. To truly engage China and India, the U.S. will need to reduce emissions on its own, through cap-and-trade programs or a carbon tax. That might have to wait until someone else is in the White House. In the meantime Bush has found a better way to create a truly global strategy for stopping climate change. It doesn't make up for six and a half years as a roadblock, but it's a start.