Fiona Harvey What age will the G8 be in 2050?

At the first major international meeting this year on climate change, in Bonn in early April, environmental campaigners wore T-shirts emblazoned with the question “What age will you be in 2050?”

It was a reference to the long-term targets for emissions cuts under discussion for inclusion in the successor to the Kyoto protocol. Nations were talking about committing to a halving of global emissions by 2050 – a target based on scientific advice contained in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – but the point the campaigners were making was that targets so far in the future are not enough in themselves. They wanted shorter term targets too, of emissions cuts by 2020.

The 2050 target has been widely accepted, and is posited by scientists as the minimum necessary if we are to hold global temperature increases to no more than 2°C, a level that scientists regard as the limit of safety beyond which the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible.

On Thursday, at the G8 meeting in Italy, President Obama of the US will host a separate meeting, the Major Economies Forum, of the leaders of the world’s 16 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, comprising the G8 and a group of developing countries including China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Korea.

One of the key objects of the meeting is to get leaders together in a way that will encourage them to give their environment ministers – who actually do the negotiating in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference later this year at which a successor to Kyoto is supposed to be drawn up – more latitude in making departures from their entrenched positions.

But as of Wednesday, the target of halving emissions by 2050 looked to have been dropped from the
MEF and G8 draft texts. This was largely owing to the reluctance of China to sign up to such a target without receiving concessions from industrialised countries on 2020 emissions targets and financing for poor countries, to help them cut emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

China sees the target as a bargaining chip, and wants to wring more out of it. However, this means the failure of the MEF process. And will China want to be seen as responsible for stalling the whole process?

And if the leaders cannot even agree on a 2050 target – 41 years away – then what chances are there of agreement on a target for the emissions cuts that we will need 11 years from now?