World’s biggest emitters inch towards a carbon-cutting deal in 2009

The largest industrialised and industrialising world economies made joint declarations on how to combat climate change after G8 leaders met in Japan. They agree big emission reductions are needed, but are far from deciding how to share out the effort.

The biggest CO2 emitters from developed and developing nations papered over deep differences on cutting emissions with a raft of declarations from the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan in July.

To achieve a credible deal - in terms of significantly reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change - a breakthrough is needed before the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Copenhagen at the end of next year. Hokkaido never came close to that, but managed to avoid a breakdown in negotiations; optimists detected genuine progress.

A successor agreement is urgently needed to the UNFCCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which weakly mandates emission cuts by industrialised nations. Kyoto’s existing commitments end in 2012 and its inadequacies have become clearer with each passing year. A new deal needs to commit the US, which never signed up to Kyoto, to deep emission cuts and begin to rein in rapidly rising emissions of big developing nations such as China and India.

Negotiations on this are proceeding slowly and with difficulty (ENDS Report 401, pp 53-54 ). The hope is that the G8 meetings of the world’s largest industrialised economies - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and US - combined with US-sponsored climate change meetings of a wider group including developing world giants, could broker the outlines of a deal between the most important players.

At Hokkaido, the G8 countries agreed to "consider and adopt" the goal of achieving at least 50% reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is the minimum curb that climate scientists regard as needed to stave off the worst impacts of human-made climate change, although no precise estimate is possible. Despite the obvious tension between "consider" and "adopt" this is a step forward, particularly for President Bush’s administration - which could not agree on 50% at last year’s G8 meeting in Germany (ENDS Report 389, pp 4-5 ).

But there is no agreement on the baseline year for measuring this cut. The Kyoto Protocol’s baseline is 1990. Given the rapid growth in many big emitters’ greenhouse gas levels since 1990 (the US included), setting a later start date drastically eases the burden on them - but raises the risks of massive climate change damage.

The G8’s statement said: "We acknowledge our leadership role… each of us will implement ambitious economy-wide mid-term goals in order to achieve absolute emissions reductions and… first stop the growth of emissions as soon as possible." This, too, is progress - however dismal it may seem that some of the world’s wealthiest nations cannot commit to halting the growth in their emissions immediately. Such mid-term targets, decades before 2050, are essential to any deal’s credibility.

The G8 called for 20 large-scale carbon capture and storage projects to be launched worldwide by 2010, and pledged to promote emissions trading within and between countries and other "pricing signals" including taxes and tax breaks.

Five of the biggest developing world emitters also came to Japan to meet the G8 leaders. At the summit the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa issued a statement that said rich countries must take the lead, cutting their emissions by 25-40% by 2020 and by 80-95% by 2050 - all compared to a 1990 baseline.

These five nations, which have the lion’s share of the developing world’s emissions, made no carbon-cutting commitments of their own beyond "actions… with a view to achieving a deviation from business as usual". A huge deviation is needed to prevent their emissions soaring for decades.

They also said progress depends on major increases in resources such as aid flowing from developed to developing countries to help them cut emissions and adapt to a changing climate and rising sea levels. Their statement welcomed China’s proposal that wealthy nations should spend 0.5% of their GDP on "climate action" in the developing world, over and above overseas aid spending.

Lastly, the G8 and the five issued a joint statement along with Australia, Indonesia and South Korea, setting out what they could agree on. This was a lowest common denominator combination of their separate statements.1

They recognised that "deep cuts" in emissions are needed to contain the risk of dangerous climate change, much more money must flow from rich to poor countries and market mechanisms like carbon trading and taxing and private enterprise have key roles to play worldwide. But they could not agree on a target percentage for lowering global emissions in the long or medium term, let alone what the developed and developing world shares of the carbon-cutting effort should be.

But the "G8+8" statement twice referred to widely quoted UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that sketch out what developed and developing nations must do to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Rich nations must cut emissions by 80-95% from their 1990 output by 2050 for stabilisation at 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent, increasingly viewed as a borderline dangerous level. This is what the five major developing nations say they should commit to now. But under this scenario, developing countries in all regions would have to make "substantial deviations" from business as usual. Therein lies the basis for a deal at Copenhagen, but there is far to go.

Andrew Pendleton, of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s climate team, commented: "You could say the G8+8 statement is not being unhelpful, rather than being actively helpful in terms of reaching a credible agreement at Copenhagen. But the developing nations are getting their act together better."

The House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee has published its conclusions on how the UK can help towards reaching a global deal.2 It says credible policies for cutting the nation’s own emissions are vital - which means rethinking aviation expansion plans and not being over-reliant on purchasing overseas emissions credits. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, working with NGO The Climate Group, has also published his thoughts on the shape of a global deal and the pathway to it.3

  • The UK is the top performer on tackling climate change among G8 nations, followed by France. Canada and the US come seventh and last. This is the conclusion of an assessment by consultants Ecofys, commissioned by WWF and a large insurance firm.4