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Climate Change Clouds and the G8 Summit

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: July 9, 2008

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The headline issues of past G8 summits during George W. Bush's presidency have included the Iraq war, trade, and development aid (Reuters). But climate change may be the issue that has resonated most consistently, starting with the 2001 Genoa summit, where Bush underscored his rejection of the Kyoto treaty (BBC).

During Bush's final G8 summit, which opened in Japan on July 7, leaders agreed to seek UN sanctions for Zimbabwe (UK Independent) and called on countries to lift food export bans and to make biofuels compatible with food security. Yet it was climate change policy that dominated the meeting, and member states agreed to adopt a goal of reducing emissions 50 percent by 2050. This moves beyond last year's pledge by G8 countries only to "seriously consider" the goal rather than adopt it. CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi called the agreement a "very important" step (WashPost) in addressing climate change. But Washington blocked proposals on interim emissions targets and benchmarks. Environmentalists expressed disappointment in the lack of interim targets (Reuters) and contended the long-term goal did little more than "restate last year's G8 commitment."

The G8 leaders presented their plan (FT) to eight major developing countries, including China and India, and will offer cash and technology incentives if these countries agree to the targets. The major emitters meeting—which coincided with the G8 summit and included many of the same members, as well as developing countries such as India and Brazil—released a parallel declaration this week. The declaration mostly reaffirmed what was already committed to under the original UN climate treaty. Developing nations refused to sign on to the G8's long-term goal and the major emitters could agree on no strong alternative (NYTimes). Several nations, including China, India, Mexico, and Brazil, had an alternate proposal for developed nations to cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020, and in exchange developing nations would agree to cuts of 80 percent to 95 percent by 2050.

The Bush administration consistently has stressed that international emissions commitments should include the world's major developing economies. Dan Price, a White House aide for international economics, recently said the United States would accept "binding international commitments if all major economies also are prepared" to make them (MarketWatch). The G8's climate declaration included a pledge to establish a global initiative for advanced energy technologies.

Apart from this meeting and the G8 process, many climate change activists are looking for an agreement from the 2009 UN negotiations on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. A recent CFR Independent Task Force report argues that without "appropriately ambitious" commitments from rapidly emerging economies the United States should continue to refuse binding commitments under a UN deal.

But many climate advocates believe it is also vital for the United States to come to the UN negotiating table with a strong domestic policy. With rising gas prices and a flagging U.S. economy, however, Americans show limited interest in climate change. A recent Pew Center poll shows only 35 percent of U.S. voters polled think climate change policy should be a priority for the next president and Congress. It came as little surprise, then, that Senate Democrats were unable to muscle through a climate change bill in June.

Though many U.S. environmental advocates anticipate a policy shift from the next president, some say onlookers shouldn't expect too much movement. Jennifer Morgan, climate director for the sustainable development organization E3G, says the next president will have to work closely with Congress (mp3) in order to get climate change legislation passed. She points to the experience of President Clinton, who signed the Kyoto Protocol with binding commitments for the United States only to have an overwhelming majority of the Senate refuse ratification.

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