Posted on July 31, 2009 by Stephen E. Herrmann
On July 8, 2009, at the meeting of G8 world leaders, the United States agreed to a benchmark to limit climate change. It joined some other industrialized countries by agreeing that the globe should not warm up more than 2º Celsius (that is 3.6º Fahrenheit). A limit of 2º Celsius arose out of a scientific consensus. Scientists assembled by the United Nations in 2007 said that the world could face significant dangers if we warmed it up more than 2º Celsius. But David Archer at the University of Chicago said that it’s not a hard and fast danger point, more of a judgment call.
The results left some Western leaders cheering. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the group’s statement a “historic agreement.” Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “a clear step forward.” However, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was a little less definite, saying: “I think in many ways success for us is going to be getting something through Congress and to [the President’s] desk. It puts in place a system, a market-base system, that lessens the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. Look, that’s going to be the true measure of things.”
So what was agreed to on July 8? Michael Forman, Obama’s chief negotiator at the Summit said: [The G8 countries] pledged to confront the challenges of climate change and committed to seek an ambitious global agreement. They agreed to join with other countries to achieve a 50% reduction in global emission by 2050 and a goal of 80% reduction by developed countries by 2050.”
But, we should realize that there is a hitch. The 50%and 80% reductions do not refer to the same starting number. The language in the G8 declaration is that there will be an 80% reduction from 1990 or later years. In other words, nations could pick their own starting point. In the United States, emissions have increased nearly 16% since 1990 so there is quite a bite of room in deciding where to start. Also, much of the world’s population is in non-G8 countries. China, India, Mexico and Brazil feel the better-established nations are not doing enough in the short term. They also worry that major reduction commitments on their parts, even if below the 80% target of rich nations, would hamper their economic growth.
But, it would certainly appear that the G8 accord is probably an incremental success. Until now, the United States has resisted embracing a target because it implied a commitment to dramatically change the way the world generates electricity, fuels its cars and builds its houses. The long range goals over the coming decades may be easier to agree upon when what the short-term action should be to start moving in the right direction. We all need to hope for the best.