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G-8 nations haggle over emissions

Don Lee and Margot Roosevelt Los Angeles Times

RUSUTSU, Japan – For the first time, the Bush administration on Tuesday joined other wealthy nations in an offer to halve their global warming emissions by mid-century.

But the declaration on greenhouse gases by the Group of Eight nations would only take effect if China, India and other developing nations agreed to address their own planet-heating pollution in a new international treaty – a long-standing Bush administration goal that they have until now hitherto resisted.

Early today, G-8 leaders met behind closed doors with developing nations in an attempt to come to a meeting of minds over on what to do about global climate disruption. The developing nations were not ready to go as far as supporting the 50 percent reduction by 2050 but pledged to back a United Nations effort to conclude a new climate pact by 2009.

Environmental groups and other analysts heaped criticism on the G-8 declaration, saying that it was vaguely worded and lacked critical numerical commitments to reduce carbon gases.

The five-page declaration – endorsed by the U.S., Canada, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Russia – promised “ambitious economy-wide” goals to slash emissions by 2020. It asked “all major economies” including emerging nations to be bound by a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 global warming agreement, which is expected to be negotiated in Copenhagen by December 2009.

And it promised billions of dollars in clean-energy efforts toward helping developing nations to create a “low-carbon society.” In exchange, the document asserted, developing nations would be expected to undertake “meaningful mitigation actions.”

No sooner had the G-8 issued its pledge than leaders of the developing Group of Five – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – meeting in Sapporo, about 100 miles from the remote G-8 summit site in northern Japan, called on the richer nations to ratchet up their commitment dramatically.

The G-8, they said in a joint declaration, should reduce their economy-wide emissions below a 1990 baseline by 25 percent to 40 percent in the next 12 years and by 80 percent to 95 percent by mid-century.

“It is essential that developed countries take the lead in achieving ambitious and absolute greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” the developing countries said.

The G-8 declaration called for emission reductions of “at least” half by 2050. At the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the host of the summit, said the 50 percent cuts would be from current levels. That would represent a far smaller drop since emissions have risen considerably in the past two decades.

“What was needed was a clear signal that the world’s major industrialized countries would provide real leadership in cutting their own emissions of heat-trapping gases between now and 2020,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass.

Instead, he said, the G-8 statement underscored the sharp divide between the group’s European leaders, who have called for tougher global warming measures, and Bush.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” Meyer said. “This is basically kicking the can down the road.”

The G-8 did not consult with developing nations in drafting its declaration, according to Bush administration officials.

But they sought to portray the G-8 declaration as an olive branch tendered toward skeptical developing nations that believe industrial nations caused the climate crisis through excessive emissions over the past century, and are now trying to limit their industrial growth.

“This declaration represents a significant advance on prior discussions,” said Dan Price, assistant to the president for International Economic Affairs, adding that the two groups have moved “beyond many of the artificial as well as divisive distinctions of the past.”

James Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, said “it’s very consequential that for the first time the G-8 has converged around the principle that all major economies need to take midterm goals and actions, and those need to be bound in a new agreement – that’s a major step forward in terms of G-8 consensus.”

But if the G-8 reached a consensus within its own ranks, it seemed to have failed to enlist China, India and other emerging nations in what its declaration called “the shared vision.”

Judging from the draft circulating today, Philip Clapp, director of the Pew Environment Group in Washington, said, “Essentially, the major emitters talks have collapsed with no agreement.”

There were two main sticking points, he said. If developing countries were to be part of an international treaty, they expected the G-8 to commit to slashing their emissions by 2020. But the G-8 countries would not agree unless the developing nations committed to some lesser targets in 2020 themselves.

Under discussion were sector-wide emissions, such as electricity, since coal-fired power plants are a major source of global warming pollutants.

Environmental experts in China say it would be almost impossible to meet the goals suggested by the G-8.

“It will be hard for China to even promise emissions will stop increasing, let alone to say it will be cut in half,” said Lu Yingyun, professor at the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“China’s current economic development still has huge demand for heavy and chemical industries. There are so many bridges and roads being built every year. … So you cannot expect China to make promises like that.”

President Bush has refused to support ratification of the Kyoto Protocol which requires developed countries to reduce by 5.2 percent emission by 2012 from 1990 levels.

And the U.S. Senate last month scrapped legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide.

Diplomats and outside observers alike, however, said more rapid progress could be expected under a new president. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have pledged to move forward on greenhouse gas emission controls.