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A Slow Thaw in Climate Talks: G8 and MEF Outcomes

Climate change topped the agenda when heads of states recently met in Italy. There were no fireworks, but some important progress was made.

With less than six months left before global climate change talks culminate in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009, the G8 and MEF summits represented important milestones to catalyze international cooperation. The world’s richest countries and the 16 major economies responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions (including China and India), participated in the summits.

The main outcomes are summarized below, along with an analysis of key issues still to be resolved in order to achieve success in Copenhagen.

What did the G8 summit achieve?

While the G8 has addressed climate change in past years, its statements on the subject have remained general and demonstrated limited ambition. This year’s statement therefore represented significant progress, with members:

  • Endorsing a global emissions reduction goal of 50% by 2050.

  • Supporting, for the first time, a specific emissions reduction goal for the developed countries most responsible for climate change. The target agreed was a reduction “in aggregate, by 80% or more by 2050, compared to 1990 or more recent years.” Left open was which baseline year individual countries will adhere to (and therefore how sharp their emission reductions will need to be).

  • Embracing, for the first time, a commitment to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels - the ceiling scientists believe is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.

These three developments will inform the UN negotiations working toward a new climate agreement in Copenhagen. Particularly important was the signal of commitment from President Obama, with the United States abandoning its previous opposition to temperature limits and specific emissions reductions.

What did the Major Economies Forum summit achieve?

The Major Economies Forum was convened by President Obama, attending his first international climate summit as U.S. president. It brought together the G8 heads of state with representatives from China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and the European Union.

The forum failed to agree the “50% by 2050” global emissions reduction target embraced by the G8. Developing countries have been reluctant to fix a global goal which, when combined with a target for developed countries, essentially caps developing country emissions too. Its members did however agree to work together to set a global target before the Copenhagen meeting. And developing countries made other major concessions, including the development of low carbon growth plans that will create meaningful emission reductions against business as usual trends. Initiatives and commitments included:

  • Recognition that the increase in global average temperature “ought not to exceed 2 degrees C.”
  • A new commitment by both developing and developed countries to prepare “low carbon growth plans.”
  • A commitment from emerging country members to take prompt action to reduce emissions resulting in “a meaningful deviation from business as usual in the midterm” aided by developed country financing, technology transfer and capacity building.
  • A new Global Partnership to “drive transformational low carbon climate-friendly technologies.” Few details were provided other than that public sector technology investments by Major Economies Forum countries would be doubled by 2015.
  • A commitment to scale up financial resources to support action to mitigate and adapt to climate change in developing countries “urgently and substantially.” In a post summit statement, President Obama said the MEF countries had asked the G20 – an informal forum of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 key economies - to “take up climate financing issues and report back to us at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in the fall."

Progress on climate financing – especially on assistance from industrialized to developing countries - would represent an important milestone toward achieving a deal at Copenhagen. U.S. leadership will also be essential to capitalize on any momentum being generated through the Major Economies Forum process as its members continue to meet in parallel discussions to the official UN climate negotiations.

What’s next for the climate negotiations?

This week’s discussions by world leaders will hopefully bolster the prospects for securing a new treaty on climate change in December. Progress on agreeing targets, however, will probably depend on the developed world’s stance on finance. The next meeting of negotiators will take place under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn next month. To make progress, key issues on the agenda in Italy will need to be ironed out in more detail:

  • Mid-term targets: Neither the G8 nor the MEF statement commits developed countries to specific mid-term targets. Yet such targets from developed countries are essential to ensure a fast global transition to a low carbon economy and to demonstrate leadership by the greatest historical emitters of greenhouse gases.

  • Reporting and verification: An effective system under the new treaty is required to build trust among countries that all are delivering on their respective promises. While the need for such a framework is pressing, WRI research shows that positions are still far apart on this issue (PDF).

  • Adaptation: International support for adaptation to climate change in developing countries will also be central to a new agreement. Such support should help developing countries build the capacity required to craft long-term, systematic approaches to adaptation that meet the unique needs and priorities of their people.

  • Forests: Forests play a major role in global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, Activities that aim to reduce deforestation in developing countries should be recognized and internationally funded. Within the UNFCCC climate negotiations, methodological and political issues pertaining to the forest sector require us to consider options beyond the carbon market to support such forest actions.

  • Finance: Significantly scaling up finance for climate change is a prerequisite to a global deal in which all countries act to reduce their emissions. Economic and technical constraints mandate that developed countries support emerging nations in diverting from a high-carbon development path. Support, in the form of finance, technology and capacity building is both essential to a global transition to a low carbon economy and to a global deal on climate change.

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