U.S. Accord on Climate Change at G-8 Marks Progress, But Offers Little To Induce Developing Nations To Join the Effort     Print Email
Saturday, 11 July 2009

The G-8, the world’s leading industrial nations, took a collective step to fight climate change at their annual summit: at their meeting in Italy, they pledged to prevent the average temperature of the planet from rising more than two degrees Celsius above the level in 1990.

That rise is the minimum amount, scientists say, which can be tolerated without causing global environmental catastrophe.To achieve that slowdown, the Group of 8 - whose economies are responsible for 80 percent of global CO2 emissions - pledged to cut their release of greenhouse gas by 80 percent by 2050. It called on developing nations to make similar cuts of 50 percent over the same period.

It was the first time that the United States has accepted the European Union view that a specific numerical cap is needed for the carbon emissions blamed for global warming. Beyond that, however, no agreement was reached on any specific ceilings or any new suggestions or commitments on how to meet them.

The developing nations, led by China and India, rejected emission limits for themselves, arguing that the United States and other rich nations put most of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and so should accept even deeper cuts to solve the problem. China’s leader left the meeting early to deal with a surge of violence in his country’s Xinjiang province.

The outcome dimmed prospects for a major new consensus and a binding new climate accord at a UN climate conference due in December in Ottawa, Canada. In all the main emitting countries, the worsening economic crisis has fed resistance to environmental actions liable to raise costs and add to rising unemployment.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has contended that investments to create a more environment-friendly industry can provide economic stimulus and new employment. But that “win-win” argument faces growing challenges in parts of the electorate. A ground-breaking climate bill recently passed by the House of Representatives may well be watered down in the Senate before it can be signed into law.

In these circumstances, the only feasible global accord may have to be based on a “lowest common-denominator” formula acceptable to both the United States and China, with Washington and Beijing becoming the arbiters of any final agreement.

That outcome could damage prospects for the EU to maintain the momentum of its own more ambitious climate goals - and also cost EU nations the leadership they had on climate issues as long as the Bush administration and the Chinese authorities stayed on the sidelines of the debate. In that leadership role, European governments enjoyed international stature and domestic political support.

Now, however, Europeans themselves are showing signs of backsliding on their own climate goals under the pressure of mounting opposition from industrialists and trade unions. Opinion polls in the United States and most EU nations indicate falling concern about climate change as an overriding issue. Popular support for once-popular flagship climate policies has eroded amid concern their costs will worsen the economic situation.

A key complication in seeking action on carbon cuts is the need for a global consensus, a common plan of coordinated action and an agreement on how to phase the implementation of changes; without an accord on how to share risks and possible sacrifices in an equitable way, political support for action will collapse in one country after another. For example, if some countries take the initiative in imposing carbon taxes, they risk penalizing their industries with carbon taxes that give an advantage to competing industries in other countries with no carbon taxes. Jobs would then move to these countries where industries are not “penalized” for emitting carbon gases. On the pollution side, climate change is a global problem because greenhouse gases from anywhere aggravate ice-melting, sea-level rise and other local problems that have worldwide destabilizing impacts.