- 17:16 08 July 2008
- NewScientist.com news service
- Catherine Brahic
The world's leading economic powers agreed Tuesday that global emissions should to be reduced 50% by 2050.
On the face of it that seems like good news for the environment, but the G8 nations failed to say whether they would halve current or past emissions levels, rendering the agreement "pathetic", say campaigners.
Moreover the agreement failed to say how nations should split the burden of responsibility for emissions cuts, and, crucially, what would be done in the short term to meet the 2050 target.
On day two of the G8 summit on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, the US and the European Union agreed to a statement on environment and climate change.
In it, they say they "seek to consider and adopt [in UN negotiations] the goal of achieving at least 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050".
Politicians have hailed the statement as breakthrough, pointing out that at the same summit last year, the countries could only agree to "seriously consider" such a target – falling short of a commitment to adopt it.
"This is a strong signal to citizens around the world. A new, shared vision by the major economies in the climate challenge within the UN framework has emerged," says José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission.
The agreement refers to international UN climate-change negotiations on several occasions, indicating the G8's support for that process. There have been fears that the agreements made in different political forums could work against each other.
But environmental campaign groups have been quick to point out that the statement is missing a "base year". The Kyoto protocol, for instance, states that emissions will be reduced by 5.2% by 2012 relative to 1990 levels – with 1990 being the base year. Without this, an emissions target bears little meaning.
Speaking from Hokkaido, Kathrin Gutmann, policy coordinator for the WWF Climate Change Programme, says the countries could not agree on a base year and so left it out.
The EU, she says, pushed for 1990, in line with the Kyoto protocol. However, Japan and Canada, whose emissions have risen considerably since 1990, wanted more recent base years. Japan was keen for a 50% reduction compared to current emission levels.
"That would make a 10 percentage point difference," says Gutmann. "If the target were to cut emissions by 50% by 2050 relative to 2008 levels, that would mean a reduction of less than 40% when translated to 1990 levels."
It nonetheless comes as a surprise that the G8, including the US, were able to agree on a statement at all so early on in the summit. The reason is perhaps that China, India and other influential developing countries are not involved.
This allowed the G8 to make the 50% target a global one, without saying how it would be shared between developing and developed nations, something which environmental charities have also criticised.
The document has also been criticised for taking too much of a long-term view on climate change. "Governments think in five-year periods and act in five-year horizons," says Gutmann.
"You need to link long-term goals to short-term action," agrees Jim Watson of the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change in the UK. "You need to something to tell you if you're on track to meet the 2050 goal."
But Watson says the G8 cannot be expected to make concrete agreements and decide how to split the responsibility for cutting emissions between developed and developing countries. "In a way, if the G8 started cutting up the carbon pie, the rest of the world would cry foul and say it was trying to sidestep the UN," he says.
On Wednesday, US president George W Bush will convene the last in the series of Major Economies Meetings (MEM) which he launched last year. China, India, Brazil and other developing countries that rank among the world's top emitters will be present at these meetings.
A draft MEM agreement seen by New Scientist makes no mention of quantified targets, although it does state that "deep cuts in global emissions will be necessary".
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