This year’s annual Group of Eight summit, hosted by Italy, is expected to focus on complex political and economic issues of immediate concern, ranging from North Korea and Iran to international economic and financial recovery.
But the presidents and prime ministers of Japan, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Russia and Italy may find their toughest task is showing international leadership on climate change. Between the summit in L’Aquila and an international climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, where a successor to the Kyoto Protocol will be hammered out, G8 countries face growing pressure to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades by amounts scientists say are needed to stave off a global climate catastrophe, yet are also politically doable and economically convincing to voters in developed countries.
At the same time, developing countries are demanding G8 nations show leadership in the fight against global warming before they agree to sign any international climate change agreement.
Thus the July summit in Italy, along with the larger Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Pittsburgh in September, which will include the leaders of China, India, Brazil and Mexico among others, is seen by a growing number of people as one of the last chances world leaders will have to reach some sort of general consensus before Copenhagen.
The international debate over climate change consists of two fundamental discussions. The first is the scientific debate over how the Earth’s climate has changed and is changing, what those changes mean for life on the planet and what actions the human race needs to take in the future to reduce the risks of a global temperature rise that would create a climate catastrophe.
The second discussion is, essentially, a political one. It is often, but not always, grounded in the findings of climatologists, especially the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of hundreds of scientific experts around the world which assesses international climate data, and offers predictions and recommendations based on the data observed.
While there is overwhelming agreement among most nations that human beings contribute to climate change and that something must be done to mitigate those changes, there is considerable disagreement on how to interpret the scientific data or to what extent to follow the advice of the IPCC.
Many nations in Europe, most major environmental NGOs and a large number of local governments around the world favor adopting IPCC recommendations, which call for reductions of between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020, and by as much as 80 percent by 2050, using 1990 as a base year.
However, developed countries with politically powerful utilities that rely on fossil fuels or polluting industries like steel have long fought to prevent their governments from adopting stringent reduction targets. They argue the economic damage resulting from shutting down coal- and gas-fired electric generators or closing steel mills would be just as, if not more, catastrophic than global warming.
In addition, many in developed countries regardless of their industry argue that it’s unfair to force them to adhere to strict reduction targets and yet not impose numerical reduction targets on competing developing countries like China.
At the same time, politicians in developed and developing nations recognize the need for technical solutions, and much of the discussion at the U.N., and the G8 and G20 meetings in recent years has focused on what kinds of financial mechanisms might be created for, and what kinds of specific technical assistance and cooperation might be provided to developing nations that want the latest clean and “green” technologies.
Partially to address this issue, the Major Economies Meetings, which began with U.S. initiatives during the previous administration, and are made up of 17 developed and developing economies, have been continued under U.S. President Barack Obama as a way to seek technological solutions to the political problems of climate change. The next meeting is expected to take place following the G8 summit in Italy.
The road the G8 and other nations are taking to the Copenhagen conference in December actually began in Japan. In Kyoto to be exact. In December 1997, the Kyoto Protocol on the environment was agreed to after a marathon negotiating session that concluded in the early hours of the 11th day of the scheduled 10-day conference.
It was a major steppingstone in a process that had its origins in the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, which drew over 100 world leaders and 20,000 participants.
The Kyoto Protocol set binding reduction targets on 37 industrialized countries and the European Union for reducing emissions of major greenhouse gases. These reductions worked out to an average of 5 percent compared to 1990 levels, over the five-year period 2008-2012.
However, controversy dogged the Kyoto Protocol from the start. Some nations claimed the targets were either too low to be effective or too high to be politically acceptable. Prior to the conference, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution declaring America would not sign the Kyoto Protocol unless developing nations also came on board, despite the fact the U.N. had agreed they were under no obligation to commit to such targets.
In 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush declared the U.S. had rejected the Kyoto Protocol, setting off strong international condemnation. In early 2005, the Kyoto Protocol was open for ratification and by June 1 of this year, 32 countries, including Japan, France, Great Britain and Russia, had formally ratified it, and another 152 had approved or accepted it.
In the years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed, further scientific studies, as well as severe weather-related disasters in the form of floods, typhoons, droughts and hurricanes, provided evidence that the climate was indeed changing.
Despite continued claims among those who denied humans had a major impact on climate change, a growing number of people in the U.S. and elsewhere who were initially skeptical began to change their minds, and call for more effective global warming policies.
Hundreds of local governments in the U.S. and around the world began pledging to reduce their emissions by amounts that often exceeded the goals of the Kyoto Protocol while a growing number of economists and businesses began to more fully understand the negative economic impact of increased climate change, and the possibilities for new green businesses.
In early 2007, the IPCC issued its fourth assessment report, which painted a bleak picture of the 21st century without effective action from all nations to reduce their emissions and keep the Earth’s average temperature from rising further. The report warned that climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts, and that there was medium confidence a temperature rise over the next century of between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees C compared to 1980-1999 levels would likely lead to the risk of mass extinctions.
The IPCC offered a number of suggestions on how to prevent this from happening, and the one that quickly drew attention was the suggestion that greenhouse gas emissions from developed nations be reduced by between 25 percent and 40 percent (using 1990 as the base year) by 2020, followed by further reductions of between 80 percent and 95 percent by 2050 (again with 1990 as the base year).
There was a great push by environmental activists to get nations to publicly commit to these targets at the U.N. Bali climate change conference in December 2007, but to no avail. Instead, member nations agreed to measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate actions, including quantified emissions limitation and reduction objectives by developed countries, and only to nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing countries.
Over six months later, though, at the G8 summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, leaders endorsed an initiative strongly backed by Japan to cut global emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050. Left unsaid in the chairman’s summary of the summit was which base year would be used to achieve this goal. By then some nations were suggesting that it would be more politically feasible to reach agreement if 2000 or 2005 were used as the base year, despite the fact most scientific surveys, conclusions and recommendations used 1990.
On the eve of the G8 leaders’ meeting in Italy, developed countries are coming forward with their midterm reduction targets. Japan announced in June that it would seek a 15 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels. This followed announcements by Australia that it would cut its emissions by between 5 percent and 25 percent compared to 2000 levels by 2020, and by the EU that it will cut by 20 percent at least compared to 1990 levels, also by 2020. The U.S., meanwhile, is considering a 14 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels.
The various reduction targets and the range of base years other than 1990 has dismayed U.N. climate officials, environmental NGOs and many EU governments, who warn time is running out for the planet and that a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen is critical to prevent the doomsday forecasts predicted by the experts. Yet all are quick to admit that any deal that does not include the U.S. and China, which account for over 40 percent of all global emissions, is meaningless.
Many world leaders counter that the real key to solving global warming lies not in politically unattainable percentage cuts but in international cooperation on developing and massive new investments in a host of new green technologies, which will create new jobs and lifestyles. International meetings on climate change to date, be they those sponsored by the U.N., the G8, the G20 or the Major Economies Meetings, have prioritized the need for further international investment in such technologies.
The G8 summit in Italy is also expected to discuss in various forms the introduction of clean and green technologies as a solution, even as international political pressure is mounting for the summit to show, in the words of U.N. officials, ambitious leadership on climate change by committing to high targets.
The summit offers world leaders one of the few remaining opportunities to move toward some sort of a consensus on reaching an agreement in Copenhagen that all nations can live with, and decisions made on the climate in Italy may turn out to be far more crucial in the long term than whatever statements regarding the economy or international affairs are eventually released.