One step forward, one step back. That’s likely to be the verdict on the just-ended summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers. Progress came on climate change; the retreat was on AIDS. Yet the trimming of ambitions regarding AIDS policy should shape perceptions of the historic deal on greenhouse-gas emissions: Rhetoric is easy. Only sustained commitments, backed by serious actions, truly matter.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, host of this year’s summit, made a deal on climate change her top priority. She had support from most other attendees. U.S. President George W. Bush was the most important holdout. While he has reluctantly acknowledged the significance of global warming, he steadfastly opposes binding targets, preferring voluntary measures.

At their meeting, which ended Friday, the G8 leaders agreed to major cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Officials from the countries that produce the most greenhouse gases will negotiate nonbinding goals by the end of next year. The European Union, Canada and Japan have pledged to halve their emissions by 2050. The United States and Russia said they would “seriously consider” that goal.

China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa are “prepared to accept commitments” even though they, like the U.S., are not ready to accept specific targets because of the feared impact on economic growth. Still, Ms. Merkel considers that a victory: “No one can escape this political declaration. It is an enormous step forward.”

Equally important, the leaders agreed that discussions should occur within the United Nations framework. On May 31, Mr. Bush suggested that the top 15 polluters meet to set a long-term goal on emissions reductions — voluntary, of course — but the U.S. president’s refusal to embrace the Kyoto Protocol has left many wondering whether his goal is to undermine that landmark agreement rather than genuinely reduce global warming.

The G8 deal reinforces the centrality of the U.N. in this effort rather than ad hoc forums. The next steps toward creating a post-Kyoto world will occur in December, when environment ministers convene in Bali, Indonesia. Affirmation of the U.N. framework should thus be considered a success.

The applause was muted, however, after the leaders turned to funding for AIDS and other diseases. Two years ago, the G8 heads agreed to increase aid by $50 billion a year through 2010, with half the sum going to Africa. That goal has not been met; some have put the shortfall at $30 billion. This year, Ms. Merkel announced that the group would provide $60 billion to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Activists immediately criticized the pledge, noting that half that sum had already been declared by the U.S., that the offer was not earmarked for Africa, and that there was no timeline.

Similarly forgotten was the 2005 promise to provide universal access to AIDS medication. Such backtracking bodes ill for the prospects of progress on the climate change issue.

The leaders tackled other pressing foreign policy issues. North Korea was called upon to respect its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations and to respond to other security and humanitarian concerns, “including the early resolution of the issue of abductions” of Japanese nationals. Pyongyang was urged to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons programs. The leaders also “deplored” Iran’s failure to comply with U.N. Security Council demands that it end uranium enrichment, adding that they would support “adopting further measures” if Tehran did not.

The leaders, “deeply concerned about the tragic security and humanitarian situation” in Darfur, demanded that “Those violating the human rights of civilians in Darfur be held responsible and we will support efforts to bring the perpetrators of atrocities to justice.” All participants in the Darfur conflict were called on to abide by ceasefire agreements and obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1591 and international law. If they do not, then the leaders would “support appropriate action in the Security Council.”

Going down a checklist of international concerns is not enough. There must be real benchmarks for progress and report cards to ensure that goals are met.

For Japan, the host of next year’s meeting, the burden is especially high. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that a Japanese initiative provided the basis for discussion of climate change. Now, Tokyo must ensure that this year’s pledges do not become more empty rhetoric. That means building a real consensus on aggressive and achievable emissions cuts and ensuring that non-Kyoto countries are on board. That summit is a year away, but the work begins now.

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