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Environment summit’s elusive dream: Consensus

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — Environment ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations and 10 other countries, including China and India, will gather Saturday in Kobe for a three-day summit on climate change.

Building consensus between developed and developing nations for a post-Kyoto Protocol Treaty on the environment is the priority for Japan at this year’s G8 summit at Lake Toya, Hokkaido, in early July.

But sharp differences exist between developed and developing nations and among the G8 countries themselves over binding emissions targets. Coming at a time when the government is perceived at home and abroad as politically weak, there is mounting concern among other G8 members and nongovernment organizations that the Lake Toya summit will end up being ineffective and contribute little to a broad agreement on a new climate change treaty by the end of 2009, as agreed at December’s Bali conference.

Japan is expected to use the G8 environment ministers’ summit to further promote its sectoral approach to emissions-reduction targets, whereby specific industrial sectors agree to cut emissions by a certain amount.

The plan, which was unveiled earlier this year by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, has been heavily criticized internationally as being too weak to be effective and too much of an appeasement of heavy industries.

Another way Japan seeks to help countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions is through waste reduction, especially of waste that releases greenhouse gases like methane into the air, and increased recycling and reusing.

While the environment ministers are likely to find little to fundamentally disagree on concerning the promotion of recycling measures, how much consensus Japan can forge between G8 ministers and those from developing economies, particularly China and India, on far more contentious issues such as greenhouse gas reduction targets remains to be seen.

Some G8 members, including the United States, are expected to use the summit to emphasize the importance of binding, measurable commitments for all major greenhouse gas emitters, a measure expected to invite opposition by developing countries.

Taking the lead to secure even tougher reduction commitments from the G8 members for a post-Kyoto treaty is also problematic for Japan, as domestic industrial sectors, including the politically powerful steel industry and utilities, have voiced strong opposition to further cuts, warning of the negative economic impact.

The other issue Japan has put on the agenda for Kobe is biodiversity, and ensuring economic development projects prioritize protection of biodiversity.

Two other issues that may be raised in Kobe include the use of biofuels and whaling. There is a growing backlash, especially in Europe, against the widespread development of biofuels due to their negative environmental impact.

To what extent they can and should be developed further is a source of controversy, especially in nations that include Brazil, which has a huge biofuel industry. Among the many domestic and international NGOs present for the environment ministers’ summit are those bitterly opposed to Japan’s whaling program.

Some G8 members or those from observer countries who oppose whaling may use the summit to raise the issue within the context of biodiversity protection, which is on the agenda.