Amid Bickering over Nuclear Power G-8 Agrees on Emissions Reduction Goals

The G-8 countries gathered in Japan this week may disagree about the role nuclear energy should play in the energy mix of the future, but they did decide it was time to set emission reduction targets. But there is still disagreement about how to get there.

The headlines coming out of the G-8 meeting on Tuesday sound like they would be exactly what German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been hoping for. Having agreed one year ago to "seriously consider" pledging to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, G-8 leaders meeting in Toyako, Japan this week, took the plunge.

Protesters in Japan, on hand for the G-8 summit, were not impressed by the group's conclusions on climate change.
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Protesters in Japan, on hand for the G-8 summit, were not impressed by the group's conclusions on climate change.

"The G-8 nations came to a mutual recognition that this target -- cutting global emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050 -- should be a global target," said Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who, as host, announced the agreement.

But even as Merkel said that she was "very satisfied" on the climate agreement following a breakfast meeting with US President George W. Bush on Tuesday, the deal doesn't actually commit G-8 countries, among the largest industrial nations in the world, to do much of anything. Indeed, as Fukuda said, the target is a global one, allowing the United States to maintain its position of doing nothing until other major economies such as China and India move on emissions reductions as well.

"I think they're basically trying to paper over fundamental differences among the G-8 over their approach," Alden Meyer, head of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Reuters. "As long as the US and the Europeans are fundamentally at odds, you've got gridlock."

But it was another aspect of the climate change discussion that is likely to dig deeper under Merkel's skin. Even as Germany continues to follow an official policy of abandoning atomic energy due to its inherent dangers, the other G-8 countries see nuclear reactors as being a part of the solution to global warming because they do not emit carbon dioxide greenhouse gas.

James Connaughton -- Bush's senior advisor on the environment and natural resources and a former lobbyist for major electrical utilites and the mining and chemical industries -- even went so far as to say in a Monday news briefing that a country's willingness to use nuclear energy is "a litmus test for seriousness on climate change." He went on to say that "a country that has the capability to responsibly use nuclear energy, in my view, has a responsibility to do so."

To those who have followed Connaughton's comments on climate change over the years, the very fact that he has a "litmus test" must come as a surprise. As recently as 2005, Connaughton was merely proposing that the US "slow the growth of greenhouse gases." His boss Bush only began considering a human-caused component of global warming at the beginning of his second term.

Nevertheless, Germany is now isolated when it comes to nuclear power. Other G-8 countries -- including France, Great Britain and, now that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is back at the helm, Italy -- are likewise focusing on nuclear energy as a way to cut CO2 emissions.

For the moment, there is little Merkel can do to change the situation. The chancellor's grand coalition government, led by her conservative Christian Democratic Union, depends on the ongoing support of the left-leaning Social Democrats -- and one condition of that support was that Merkel's government make nuclear power phase-out its official policy.

Just how long it remains official Berlin policy, however, seems increasingly open to question. Although Merkel played by the rules in Japan and said that, contrary to Washington, she doesn't see nuclear power as a decisive issue when it comes to combating global warming, at home she has been singing a different tune. More and more German politicians -- primarily from Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union -- have been thinking out loud about revisiting the decision, made in 2000, to shut down all nuclear reactors in the country by 2022.

On Monday, Merkel's spokesman Thomas Steg said that Merkel was pleased that "the discussion about the use of atomic energy has been re-energized" and that she hopes the issue of nuclear phase-out will be revisited.

Even Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), passionately in favor of bidding nuclear power farewell, have been seen to wobble recently. Erhard Eppler, a long-time SPD veteran and intellectual figurehead, said in this week's SPIEGEL that he could imagine extending the lifetime of nuclear reactors in Germany beyond the current agreement were the eventual phase-out then written to become an amendment to Germany's constitution. Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD Environment Minister, called the idea "interesting."

SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil, though, said on Monday that talking about nuclear power without mentioned the problem of radioactive waste disposal is nothing less than "brainwashing the populace."

Despite the back-and-forth, it seems unlikely that the issue will seriously be revisited this year. Even as Germans have largely reached a nationwide consensus on the need to do everything necessary to combat climate change, they remain wary of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. And with Germans split on the issue, making it a campaign issue ahead of next year's general elections seems risky for both the SPD and CDU.

For Merkel, though, the issue will continue to be a dicey one. Even as she has set herself up as something of a global saviour when it comes to climate change, many of her colleagues on the world stage are now wondering why Germany continues to rely on brown coal-fired power plants for much of its energy needs. In Japan, some members of the G-8 established an international initiative to promote the safe use of nuclear energy.

It reads, "those of us who have or are considering plans relating to the use and/or development of safe and secure nuclear energy believe that its development will contribute to global energy security, while simultaneously reducing harmful air pollution and addressing the climate change challenge."

The only G-8 country not to join the initiative was Germany.



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