Queen of the Summit Merkel Revels in G-8 Climate Breakthrough

Merkel surprised everyone by coming up with the goods on climate change at the G-8 summit Thursday. But is the compromise agreement too vague to be worth much?

By and in Heiligendamm, Germany

Putin, Merkel and Bush share a word in the intimacy of a "Strandkorb" beach chair.
Getty Images

Putin, Merkel and Bush share a word in the intimacy of a "Strandkorb" beach chair.

She managed it after all. On the afternoon of the first day of the G-8 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel emerged as queen of the summits once again. Shortly after 3 p.m., Merkel suddenly made an appearance in the briefing room in Heiligendamm, much to the surprise of waiting reporters, who were expecting Merkel's "sherpa" -- as the chief negotiators are known -- Bernd Pfaffenbach. But the chancellor wanted to announce the first result of her G-8 summit herself. Shortly after the internal briefing, she hurried out to appear before the television cameras.

Against the opulent backdrop of Heiligendamm, she said: "This is a political statement no one can escape." Her words were meant to head off potential critics like the German Green Party, which promptly criticized Merkel's compromise as being "wishy-washy."

Merkel had stuck to her guns when it came to the European Union's climate goals and, together with the other Europeans in attendance, she managed to bring obstinate US President George W. Bush at least somewhat closer to her position. The G-8 nations, including the United States, will now at least "seriously consider" a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. As soft as the wording of the statement is, it is at least a start, especially in light of the fact that Bush was initially opposed to seeing any definitive numbers appear in the final document.

The white resort town on the sea gleams in the sun, the sky is blue, and the Europeans have stood their ground, at least to some extent. Merkel is pleased. On the evening of the first day, the right images from Heiligendamm were finally being broadcast into living rooms around the country and the world.

The news in the weeks leading up to the summit was dominated by stories about the construction of the security fence and the protests. Heiligendamm, it seemed, was doomed to turn into a fiasco. Commentators complained about the millions in costs, while the participants seemed hopelessly at odds on the key issues. There was already talk of the "delayed revenge of (former German Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder," who had picked out the summit's location while still in office. Then the first day of the summit was dominated by the images of a spectacular inflatable boat campaign by environmental organization Greenpeace.

All that was before Merkel stepped in front of the cameras. This moment could very well mark the turning point in reporting on the summit, directing the media's attention back to the powerful and away from the protestors.

Nevertheless, it didn't occur to anyone to describe the climate compromise as "historic," and Merkel avoided using the term "breakthrough," normally one of her favorite words. Nevertheless, the wording of the compromise was sufficiently promising for the German chancellor to call it a "very, very significant success."

Two elements of the compromise, in particular, are seen as progress on climate protection. First, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, which had rejected the Kyoto Protocol, will now be involved in the negotiations over a post-Kyoto agreement. Secondly, the club of the world's leading industrialized nations has adopted the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), at least in general, and has declared reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be a fundamental goal.

This is already more than many had expected until very recently. Nevertheless, the compromise still leaves plenty of room for criticism. Before the summit, Merkel had promised not to accept any "lazy compromises." Her words are now coming back to haunt her, as organizations like Greenpeace, Oxfam and other environmentalist groups take her to task for not living up to them. If there is one thing the final document does not contain, it is mandatory reduction targets for the United States and Russia. This is where Bush has prevailed.

But because nobody had expected binding targets, Merkel can still tout what has been achieved and come away looking relatively good. She likes to point out how things were looking before the summit began. Canada recently announced that it would be unable to comply with the Kyoto targets. Japan, said Merkel, is still fighting, the United States never ratified the agreement in the first place, emerging nations had not specified any reduction targets and, finally, the world faced the prospect of the Kyoto Protocol simply expiring in 2012.

According to Merkel, the negotiations at Heiligendamm prevented the climate protection treaty from "plunging into a serious crisis." A G-8 summit, it seems, just isn't complete without a dose of drama, and leaders writing history is part of the story. In light of the UN climate negotiations in Bali December, Merkel declared, just as dramatically: "for the first time, the road is now clear so that it will once again be possible to take action there."

Merkel emphasized that negotiations can now begin, within the framework of the UN, to address the post-Kyoto period. This, she said, paves the way for environment ministers to negotiate at December's follow-up conference in Bali. She also noted that a 2009 deadline had been set for the conclusion of the talks.

On Wednesday, the delegations spent the entire day fine-tuning their position papers, and on Thursday morning climate change was also on the agenda in the first meetings of the working groups of the G-8 leaders. After that, the delegations came together once again to coordinate the wording of their respective statements.

Unity among the Europeans -- including, in addition to Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- was of critical importance. The British prime minister had had breakfast with the US president in the morning, and climate protection was also on the agenda of that meeting. After meeting with Bush, Blair announced that he intended to achieve substantial progress.

Merkel had one overriding objective from the start: not to sideline the UN. Bush's proposal to convene his own climate conference of the 10 to 15 major producers of greenhouse gases was interpreted as a solo effort. Using the UN process "as a foundation" would offer the "best chance" of achieving agreement on climate change, Merkel said. She said that she didn't believe that results could be achieved from emerging nations except within the UN process. The chancellor had made similar statements on Wednesday in a one-on-one conversion with Bush.

The amount of work this entailed can be deduced from a remark the chancellor made. As far as the passages on the UN go, she said, "we wrestled over every word." But, said Merkel, "I am satisfied."


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