G8 climate goals a distant mirage

July 9, 2009

So the planet is saved after all. The leaders of the world’s eight biggest industrialised nations have embraced the goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, and the need for developed countries to cut their own emissions by 80 percent by the same date from their 1990 levels.

Before you crack open the low-carbonated champagne, consider the weasel wording of the Group of Eight summit communique:

We recognise the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognising that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. Consistent with this ambitious long-term objective, we will undertake robust aggregate and individual mid-term reductions, taking into account that baselines may vary and that efforts need to be comparable. Similarly, major emerging economies need to undertake quantifiable actions to collectively reduce emissions significantly below business-as-usual by a specified year.

Are such carefully-hedged words worth the paper they are printed on? What are these politicians committing themselves to do during their own term of office? Most will be dead and buried by 2050.

Imagine for a moment that world leaders meeting in 1909 had adopted emissions targets to be met by 2050. How likely would those have been to be achieved? Might not one or two minor developments in the intervening years have rendered them meaningless — the mass production of automobiles, the advent of air travel, two world wars, the rise of communism and of fascism?

It’s easy to be cynical. But do such grand, long-range targets serve any purpose other than to manufacture media headlines? The answer is probably “yes”. While 2050 is too distant a horizon to be operational today, the goal does give governments a framework for public policy.

The fact that the United States under President Barack Obama signed up to these targets, and to the objective of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the temperature in pre-industrial times should force deep cuts in coming years. Setting specific, binding targets for 2020 would be more useful. But no government was likely to show its hand ahead of crucial U.N. climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December. 

What matters most now is whether the United States and China can work out a deal on curbing their emissions that would lay the groundwork for a global understanding later this year.



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