Fiona Harvey G8 critics miss the point

The meeting of the G8 and the Major Economies Forum has been derided as a failure in the environmental campaigning community and among non-governmental organisations.

But this is not very fair. Anyone who expected a breakthrough at this meeting on the vexed issue of 2020 targets for emissions cuts, or the question of financing from rich countries to help poor nations cut emissions and deal with the effects of climate change, was deluding themselves. It is too early in the process for these to be decided.

The fact that the meeting did not agree these things is not surprising and should not badly affect progress on these issues before Copenhagen in December.In fact, the progress that was made at this week’s meeting will not become apparent for some weeks or months.

The  MEF meeting was called by President Obama of the US and consisted of the world’s 16 biggest emitters plus the EU, the UN and Denmark, as host of the climate change conference in Copenhagen this December at which nations hope to forge a successor to the Kyoto protocol, the main provisions of which expire in 2012.

The point of this meeting was never going to be the declaration at the end of it. As it stood, this declaration was quite strong on the part of  developed countries – they went further than ever before by agreeing to cut their emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

All nations, developed and developing, also agreed to be guided by science in their emissions targets, which they agreed should put the world on a trajectory to avoid warming of any more than 2°C, which scientists regard as the limit of safety.

This was also a major step forward, as it has not been adopted before at a major international forum.

But the failure in the NGOs’ eyes was twofold. A more widespread agreement to halve global emissions by 2050 did not happen.

This was because China and India refused to agree to such a target without pledges on financing from rich countries.

But it was also because these countries do not particularly like the G8 format, which carries far too much of a whiff of a rich men’s club. Why should they agree concessions here? They would prefer to reserve the serious negotiations for the UN process.

As for mid-term targets of emissions cuts by 2020, that will not be decided until later in the process. The EU member states are the only ones to have come up with emissions cuts by 2020 that come anywhere close to matching the scale of cuts environmentalists and developing countries are demanding. Countries like the US and Japan will have to negotiate further on this issue, but still they are unlikely to come up with the scale of cuts demanded.

And they have some justification – Japan is already the world’s most energy efficient economy so achieving further cuts is hard. The US is starting from a position in which the last eight years have effectively seen it moving backwards on emissions, rather than forward. Any targets for the US will have to accommodate that fact.

A realistic negotiating process will have to take account of these positions, rather than simply demanding more than can be delivered in the context of domestic policies in the countries concerned.

So in summing up this week’s meetings, let’s try to be a bit more realistic. Some things were not decide, but there was little prospect that there would be in this stage of the process. There is a long way to go yet in the UN negotiations and much of it will go to the wire.

More importantly, the leaders have met and may yet be galvanised by Obama’s determination to reach a deal. If they return home to encourage their environment ministers to change some of their entrenched positions in the UN negotiations, that will be a signal achievement.

President Obama has called for quick decisions on financing from the rich to the poor world. This will involve government funding, but it should also include talks on how to bring funding from the private sector to bear on the question. If government funding at least can be decided in the next two to three months, that will be a major achievement in the run-up to Copenhagen.

Though bear in mind, of course, that whatever funding developed countries agree will be derided as inadequate. As will any mid-term targets that they come up with. Negotiating major international agreements is often a thankless task, and never more so than in the field of climate change.

Related links:

G8 agrees stiff emissions targets – but will the rest of the world? (FT Energy Source, 09/07/09)
G8 agrees big greenhouse emission cuts (FT, 08/07/09)
A glimmer of hope for Copenhagen?
(FT Energy Source 09/07/09)
What age will the G8 be in 2050? (FT Energy Source, 08/07/09)
The climate change guide to the G8 (FT Energy Source, 06/07/09)