Time is running out for Japanese diplomacy — and possibly for the future of the Earth, too.

A three-day meeting of 16 major green house gas emitting countries will start Friday in Seoul, the last major session before July’s Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido, where climate change from global warming will be the key issue among participants.

As the chair of this year’s G8 summit, Japan is struggling to form any meaningful consensus among participants in the outreach meeting, which includes the G8 countries as well as Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and South Korea.

But major differences between developing and developed countries remain unresolved, clouding the prospects for a breakthrough at the G8 summit, Foreign Ministry officials said.

“The prospects are bleak,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official involved in negotiations over climate change issues.

“Talks have been stalemated from the start. Developing countries are saying climate change is the problem of developed countries, and not theirs,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, talks between the major gas emitting countries stalled at a very early stage.

Developing countries have not even agreed on the need for them to set any reduction goals for their greenhouse gas emissions, despite scientists’ warnings that many of them could suffer devastating damage from global warming that will push up the world’s temperature by 1.8 degrees to 4 degrees by the end of the century.

Developing countries instead claim it is developed countries, which have enjoyed the fruits of industrialization for generations, that should cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The United States, the world’s No. 1 gas emitter, insists it will not commit to any long-term goal without a similar commitment from China and India, the world’s second- and fifth-largest gas emitters.

“Only after agreeing on the need to set a goal for the whole world can you start talking about any numerical targets. But we are not at that stage,” the Foreign Ministry official said. “The situation is very, very tough.”

Whether both developing and developed countries can agree on setting global long-term reduction goals is a key issue at the G8 summit and its outreach session, government officials and experts said.

“At last year’s summit, G8 countries agreed to ‘consider seriously’ the target of halving global emissions by 2050. Everybody would agree that at least developed countries should agree on stronger wording than that,” said Hironori Hamanaka, a professor of environmental issues at Keio University and a former high-ranking Environment Ministry official.

“To prompt developing countries to take a proactive attitude, developed countries should make their responsibility clearer,” he argued.

Based on recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Japan has proposed as a long-term goal cutting global emissions by 50 percent by 2050 to stabilize emissions and avert a catastrophe.

But Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who is trying to lead the discussion as this year’s G8 chair, has not come up with a more realistic medium-term target by around 2020, drawing criticism from environmental groups.

“Fukuda presents only a blurred vision and the lack of a 2020 target for emissions reductions is utterly disappointing,” said Kathrin Gutmann, climate policy coordinator for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

As a midterm goal, Fukuda has only proposed a government estimate that Japan could reduce gas emissions by 14 percent from the 2005 level, which environmentalists say is much less ambitious than, for example, the target set by the European Union.

“Instead of setting the midterm target, Japan suggests changing the base year from 1990 to 2005. This would be equivalent to a 4 percent reduction of Japanese emissions by 2020 only, compared to 1990,” WWF pointed out.

The EU has proposed a 20 percent cut from the 1990 level by 2020, and a 30 percent reduction if others match their efforts, WWF pointed out.

Foreign Ministry officials argued that it is too early for Japan to commit to any medium-term target in negotiations, which could eventually lead to an obligatory target being set.

In fact, setting a midterm target for each country was the most difficult process in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol talks, and diplomatic negotiations continued to the last minute.

Experts also pointed out that Japan’s stance has improved compared with last year. Many countries had doubted whether Japan, despite being the chair of the G8 summit, was really willing to commit to any numerical target for the post-Kyoto Protocol period after 2012, they said.

But on June 9, Fukuda announced that Tokyo will aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050 from the current level, and will consider introducing an emission trading system for Japanese companies.

“Prime Minister Fukuda made a top-down decision by putting down resistance from the trade ministry and Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). That is a great leap,” said Toru Morotomi, associate professor at the Kyoto University graduate school and an expert on climate change issues.

“Many officials at the trade ministry and Keidanren had strongly believed that the Kyoto Protocol is an unequal treaty and any numerical target (to reduce gas emissions) should not be set for the post-Kyoto Protocol period,” he said.

Still, it is open to question whether Fukuda’s initiative will prove strong enough to win compromises from the U.S. and developing countries.

Morotomi, echoing many other experts, predicted there will be no drastic changes on the U.S. side at least until the next president is elected in November.

Developing countries may agree to set a target to improve their energy-efficiency by introducing advanced technologies because it will reduce energy costs and help improve the competitiveness of their industries over the long run, Morotomi said.

But trying to impose any quantitative goal on developing countries now would only lead to the collapse of the post-Kyoto Protocol negotiations, he warned.