Will G-8 Countries Move Faster on Climate Change?

In the 18 months since work began in earnest on a new global climate treaty, the world has been waiting for industrial countries -- especially the US -- to signal that they know deep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions must occur soon to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Hopes are running high that this week's meeting of leaders from the Group of Eight -- countries that represent the world's eight richest economies -- will provide that signal.

Climate change is an issue that looms large on the agenda at the economic meeting that begins Wednesday in L'Aquila, Italy. The G-8 event is sandwiched between two United Nations-sponsored negotiating rounds aimed at crafting a new global-warming treaty to pick up where the 1997 Kyoto Protocol leaves off at the end of 2012. Negotiators say they hope the outlines of a treaty will be ready for approval at December's climate-change summit in Copenhagen.

The G-8 meeting also overlaps with the US-sponsored Major Economies Forum. Former President Bush established it to bring the largest emitters together, along with key developing countries, to try to find ways to smooth out bumps in UN negotiations. Progress has been slow since a road map for talks was set out at the 2007 UN climate summit in Bali.

New momentum from the US

Now, however, the US has a president disposed to act more aggressively on the issue than did his predecessor. And in Congress, the US House passed historic energy legislation last month that laid out clear climate goals.

With this additional momentum from the US, "this year the G-8 could be a game changer," says Angela Anderson, director of the Pew Environment Group's Global International Warming Campaign.

For that to happen, she says, the G-8 needs to clearly state that its goal is to hold global average temperature increases by century's end to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. It needs to make firm commitments to help poor countries adapt to climate change. And it needs to provide aid to developing countries so they can afford green technologies to meet any obligations under a new climate treaty and still raise their standards of living.

Cap global warming at 3.6 degrees F.?

The G-8 leaders -- from the US, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Britain -- could well acknowledge the importance of capping global warming at 3.6 degrees, say analysts in Italy watching the meeting.

"That would be a shift for the US, because President Bush was not willing to talk about trying to stay under any temperature level," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

To achieve that goal, scientists have projected that global greenhouse-gas emissions must fall by at least 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. As outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that path would require industrial countries to reduce their collective emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels, and developing countries would have to reduce emissions substantially below "business as usual."

Last year, the G-8 meeting ended with leaders agreeing to a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, but they failed to identify a base year against which to measure the effort.

Besides a G-8 acknowledgment of a temperature goal, developing countries are looking for commitments on interim goals as well.

Any long-term goal is helpful "only if it gets us closer to agreeing on near-term commitments to action," says Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.

That's an issue expected to crop up during the Major Economies Forum. So far, industrial countries have failed to agree on what targets for 2020 should look like, or the base year against which those targets would be gauged.

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