Posted by: Sara Shipley Hiles | July 9, 2009

What’s really happening at the G8?

Climate news continues this week with President Barack Obama attending the G8 summit of major industrial nations in L’Aquila, Italy. Climate change is one of the top issues on the agenda.

But news reports of what’s happening there vary widely. Some cast the discussions as a retreat – others an advance. So what’s really going on?

Image by Jason Reed/Reuters via New York Times - President Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France during a round table session at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on Wednesday.

Image by Jason Reed/Reuters via New York Times - President Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France during a round table session at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, on Wednesday.

Emily Gertz of the Stop Global Warming blog characterized the meeting as a “fail:”

Word is emerging that the “Group of 8” world’s major industrial nations has failed to create a consensus on slashing human-propelled greenhouse gas pollution (GHGs) by 2050.

G8 climate change negotiators, meeting this week in L’Aquila, Italy, have given up on a proposal that would have comitted most nations to cutting GHGs by 50% by 2050, and industrialized nations to 80% cuts by 2050. They’re putting off the hard talk until December’s international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen.

But the Times of London took the opposite approach in a story by political editor Philip Webster datelined from L’Aquila. His story trumpeted  “historic new targets:”

President Obama and other leaders backed historic new targets for tackling global warming last night in an agreement designed to pave the way for a world deal in the autumn.

For the first time, America and the other seven richest economies agreed to the goal of keeping the world’s average temperature from rising more than 2C (3.6F).

They also agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 as they strove for a worldwide deal at Copenhagen in December.

The moves were designed to put the squeeze on the world’s developing nations, most of whose leaders will join the G8 for a debate chaired by President Obama today.

Which version is closer to the truth? The focus on the 2-degree temperature increase lets international leaders cast the meeting as a win, but the political commitment is vague and the scientific benefit of limiting warming to 2 degrees appears unclear.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker, in a story datelined L’Aquila, addressed both issues in his lead:

The world’s major industrial nations and newly emerging powers failed to agree Wednesday on specific cuts in heat-trapping gases by 2050, undercutting an effort to build a global consensus to fight climate change, according to people following the talks.

As President Obama arrived for three days of meetings, negotiators for the world’s 17 leading polluters dropped a proposal to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by mid-century, and emissions from the most advanced economies by 80 percent. But both the G-8 and the developing countries agreed to set a goal of stopping world temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

Longstanding differences between industrialized and developing nations explain the divide, according to Baker:
The failure to establish specific targets on climate change underscored the difficulty in bridging longstanding divisions between the most developed countries like the United States and developing nations like China and India. In the end, people close to the talks said, the emerging powers refused to agree to the specific emissions limits because they wanted industrial countries to commit to midterm goals in 2020, and to follow through on promises of financial and technological help.
A coalition of environmental groups had been pushing the 2-degree limit, according to an article in Grist.
The 2-degree limit makes for a nice soundbite, since it’s so much more comprehensible than the usual thicket of numbers and dates involved in  climate negotiations. Is this a case of sleight of hand?
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