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SCIENCE: G8 Failure to Launch on Climate

Analysis by Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jul 13 2009 (IPS) - The G8’s failure to make meaningful commitments on climate last week pushes the world ever closer to global climate catastrophe, experts warn. Without commitments to take action, there is little comfort in G8 countries’ agreement to keep overall global warming below 2.0 degrees Celsius.

“If they took the 2.0-degree commitment seriously, it would imply a vigourous and immediate carbon emission reduction programme,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University in the U.S.

“It would mean carbon emissions would have to peak by 2020 and decline. That’s a tall order but that’s what needs to happen to stabilise at around 2.0 degrees C,” Oppenheimer told IPS.

The Group of Eight of the world’s largest economies comprises Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Canada, Japan and the United States.

Climate experts stress that 2.0 degrees is not in any way a guarantee of safety. There are already significant impacts currently from climate change. However, from what scientists know today, risks increase markedly over 2.0 degrees of warming, Oppenheimer warned.

Global temperatures have already risen 0.8 C in the last hundred years and will reach 1.2 to 1.5 C based on emissions already in the atmosphere.

“The climate system is unpredictable. Two degrees is just a guideline,” Oppenheimer said.

There are many silent, unknown thresholds where changes will not be reversible and we won’t see the consequences until much later. “We’re flying blind…we have to act in a pretty cautious manner,” he said.

Political caution is all that the G8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy delivered. G8 commitments to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 have little significance without a far more important mid-term target of 2020, says Kim Carstensen, leader of the WWF Global Climate Initiative.

“We need an ambitious 2020 target of 40 percent reductions for the developed world,” Carstensen said in an interview from L’Aquila. “There has been no progress on the huge gap between what the science says is needed and what developed countries will commit to.”

Even the much-touted new U.S. climate change bill would only result in emissions of 5.0 to 6.0 percent below 1990 levels for the year 2020. And the bill’s passage is not a certainty. Japan’s latest commitment is 7.0 percent, the European Union has promised 20 percent, while Canada is not promising to do anything.

Remarkably, Canada, the U.S., China, India and the 13 other major greenhouse- gas emitting countries plus representatives of the European Union met just before the G8 to sort out the climate problem at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate.

These countries represent 80 percent of global emissions and agreed to keep the temperature increase below 2.0 degrees C, but offered no commitments other than “support” for overall global reductions of 50 percent, with developed countries making 80 percent reductions by 2050.

After the G8, Canada promptly called such a target “aspirational”, with no need to change policy. And the U.S., along with other countries, fudged their commitment by insisting on leaving the door open to using different baseline years from which to measure their reductions.

All of this bodes ill for the final climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December.

If there is no 2020 emissions reduction target in Copenhagen, it indicates countries are not serious about tackling climate change, suggested Ged Davis, co-president of the Global Energy Assessment Council in Vienna.

“Without a 2020 target we can’t get the public debate about how to go forward,” Davis told IPS.

Talk of keeping warming under 2.0 degrees is also meaningless without that 2020 target and an outline of the policies on how to get there, he said.

China and India have said they will not agree to any 2020 target in Copenhagen. One of the reasons is the unresolved issue of how to address the fact that the bulk of the emissions in the atmosphere today have come from the rich, developed nations. Meanwhile the bulk of present and future emissions will come from China, India and the rest of the developing world.

These are extremely difficult negotiations, emotional and complex and we all need to play our part, he says. Copenhagen will not sort all this out because there are years of negotiations to come but “it is very important to get a strong outcome in Copenhagen”, Davis said.

“If we don’t have an agreed 2020 target and the paths forward, we could end up continuing to debate until the water rises around our necks,” he said.

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dan and carol montecalvo