Putting the Brakes on Global Warming: G-8 States Agree to Two-Degree Limit

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The leaders of the G-8 states, who are meeting in L'Aquila in Italy, have agreed to try to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. But whether China and India will play along remains to be seen.

The major industrial nations have come at least a little closer in their positions on climate change. On the first day of the G-8 summit in the Italian city of L'Aquila, which began Wednesday, the G-8 members -- the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Britain, Italy, France and Russia -- agreed to try to limit the rise in global temperatures to just two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to the beginning of the industrial age. "The two degrees are now our common basis," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday evening.

The G-8 leaders pose for a group photo together with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (second from right) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (far right).
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The G-8 leaders pose for a group photo together with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (second from right) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (far right).

According to Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, the G-8 countries also agreed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But it initially remained unclear which reference year would apply for the reduction: If it were later than 1990 -- the baseline normally used -- then it would mean more modest cuts, as most countries saw emissions rise after that date.

Moreover, the agreement falls short of the European Union's target, set in March 2007, to reduce CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020, in comparison to 1990 levels. Germany has even said it wants to make cuts of as much as 40 percent by 2020.

The G-8 representatives also left open the question of how the climate protection targets were to be financed, according to sources in L'Aquila. A decision on that issue has been postponed until the G-20 summit in the US city of Pittsburgh at the end of September, sources say.

Meanwhile environmentalists and scientists are desperately urging politicians to hurry. Many researchers consider that the two-degree goal can only be met if huge efforts are made -- if it can be achieved at all. Some experts fear catastrophic consequences if the Earth warms by more than two degrees. But a recent study came to the conclusion that it is no longer even possible to stay within the magic limit.

The Long Road to Copenhagen

Of central importance in the fight against global warming is also whether important emerging economies like China, India and Brazil come on board. The relevant negotiations in L'Aquila have clearly been hampered by the fact that Chinese President Hu Jintao is not participating in the L'Aquila talks because of the ongoing ethnic unrest in his country. Before Hu's departure, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi talked of Chinese "resistance" in the climate negotiations. "China is still skeptical," said Berlusconi. It will be seen on Thursday just how far China and India are prepared to make concessions.

Sources close to the negotiations in L'Aquila reported that it appears uncertain whether the emerging economies will agree to the commitment to halve greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. In previous climate negotiations, most recently at the UN summit on the Indonesian island of Bali in December 2007, it became evident that emerging countries like India, China and Brazil consider economic growth more important than climate commitments. They argue that Western industrial nations, who are primarily responsible for the current warming, should lead the way in the fight against climate change.

The industrialized countries, for their part, stress that all efforts to fight climate change are doomed to failure from the outset, should the emerging economies not be on board -- a view that is shared by many scientists. And that means concrete agreements rather than vague promises. In the view of many experts, merely agreeing on a two-degree limit is far from sufficient, as long as it is not clear exactly how this objective will be achieved.

It currently appears doubtful whether such an agreement will be reached at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December -- thereby creating a viable successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol -- as the basic positions of the industrialized and emerging economies have changed little since the 2007 negotiations on Bali.

The environmental organization WWF regards the G-8's climate commitments as progress, but not as a breakthrough. It's true that the agreement on the two-degree goal is a positive step, WWF climate expert Kathrin Gutmann said on Wednesday in L'Aquila. "However we're still missing a statement regarding what it means in concrete terms," she added. Figures need to be put on the table showing how CO2 emissions can be reduced by 2020, Gutmann said, adding that a mere statement regarding what is supposed to happen by 2050 is not enough.

No Tricks

The G-8 states also agreed to give billions of dollars in aid to farmers in poor countries. Under the leadership of the United States and Japan, more than $12 billion (€8.7 billion) will be allocated to improving farming methods. The aim is to allow people in the poorest countries to be able to feed themselves in the long term through better domestic agriculture. With this step, the US is rethinking its decades-old policy of exporting food to developing countries, a practice from which American farmers profited massively.

The development organization Oxfam has expressed doubts, however, over whether the new commitment will actually mean more money flowing from the G-8 states to the developing world. There can be no "accounting tricks," the organization said.

Shortly before the start of the three-day summit, Chancellor Merkel once again called for greater efforts to combat climate change, especially on the part of the traditional industrial nations. "Because we did a lot of damage to nature, we naturally have the responsibility to be a pioneer when it comes to protecting the climate," said Merkel.

The EU attributes the new momentum mainly to the United States' new direction following the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt spoke of "very important progress" on the part of the US.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso acknowledged, however, that some countries were not yet ready to follow the ambitious climate targets of the Europeans over the medium term. "We are not there yet," Barroso said.

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