G8 Summit: No Good News on Climate Change

For those who have been watching the climate change negotiations over the part decade, the recently concluded G8 Summit was more of the same: arm twisting and muscle-flexing by the US, and desperate attempts by the rest of the world to get it to make the least of concessions. There was however a difference this time. After more than 15 years of bullying and holding the environment to ransom, the US has finally got what it has been angling for. Now, despite being the world’s most energy-intensive economy, the US will not have to move a little finger for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions unless developing countries like India and China do. This is a major victory for the US and its ideological position, and is undoubtedly the most significant development of the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan.

Right from the beginning of the climate change negotiations, the US has been using two weapons. Firstly, challenging the facts and rubbishing the science behind global warming. Secondly, holding highly populated countries, India and China in particular, responsible for the crisis. The US has consistently refused to be part of any emissions reductions effort unless India and China also make reduction commitments. In other words, the US wants to shift the responsibility of the crisis away from the energy and capital intensive lifestyles of the developed world to the subsistence existence of the millions of poor in the developing world.

The developing world has fought long and hard against this logic of equating luxury emissions from factories and automobiles with survival emissions. Their argument has been that every human being should have an equal access over the atmosphere, and therefore, future emission targets should be based on per capita greenhouse gas emissions. As opposed to this, the US argues that present emission levels of a country should be used as a benchmark. That is, the more energy intensive the economy of a country, the greater would be its right to keep polluting. This is exactly what makes the US victory at the G8 Summit this month so dangerous and so shameful.

What exactly has the Summit achieved? If one were to go by media reports, there has been a major headway in the climate negotiations, albeit at the huge cost of accepting the US’s problematic position on India and China’s responsibility. However, here too, one needs to read beyond the rhetoric. There are two very significant features of the G8 statement. To begin with, while declaring global emission reduction goals, the G8 refused to specify any quantitative targets for themselves or for developed countries as a whole. The statement has deliberately kept away from delving on the specifics, which would obviously have taken away much of the shine from the developed world’s claims of “major progress”! The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had recommended immediate and strong action on emissions reduction, and the G8 statement has conveniently overlooked the most important clause of the IPCC recommendations, i.e. that the global emissions “should decline before 2015” . Absolutely no short-term, stiff emission reduction targets have been set, which paves the way for continued inaction.

Secondly, and most dangerously, the agreement has been ominously silent in stipulating the baseline year to measure the extent of emissions reductions needed to reach the goal of 50 per cent cuts by 2050. This is a departure from Kyoto and earlier agreements that had set 1990 as the baseline for future cuts. This is no casual omission, since such vagueness leaves the field open to vastly different interpretations. From a practical standpoint, emissions have risen by more than a quarter since 1990; so a 50 per cent cut from now is worth far less than a 50 per cent cut from 1990 levels.

In keeping with the general trend of vagueness, the G8 agreement has neatly kept away from working out the modalities of emissions reduction. There is no mention of setting up a fund for technology transfer or IPRs in climate-related technologies to developing countries, especially least developed countries and island states (who are likely to be the most affected by global warming).

For India, the G8 Summit’s agreement is far from good news. However, as far as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is concerned, the Summit was immensely successful: after all, for the UPA government, the priority is certainly not to oppose the US, but rather to become its “strategic” partner! No surprises then that the Prime Minister was more interested in garnering support for the Indo-US Nuke Deal at the Summit than worrying about global warming.

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