The stock response of many campaigners and activists to the sorts of headline announcements that emerge from G8 summits is that the devil is in the detail. Whether the topic is development aid or climate change, their consistently wary advice is: "Read the small print". In the aftermath of the 2008 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, the reverse is true: for although the Japanese government hosts had sought to make climate change a central theme of the gathering, it is the lack of detail in the final summit statement on this issue that bedevils the G8 leaders' approach.
The media presentation might suggest otherwise - for since the meeting of the world's leading economies on 7-9 July came to a close, an army of headlines, features and opinion-pieces has been branded with the words "at least 50%" - the G8's agreed aim for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In semantic terms, this is a step forward from the Heiligendamm, Germany summit communiqué in 2007, when the leaders said only that they would "seriously consider" such a target.
True, words matter - but so does the thinking behind them. So while any movement that might ease and hasten United Nations negotiations on a new, global climate agreement is welcome, fixing on numerical emissions cuts without explaining their significance or how they can be achieved could prove unhelpful.
In this light, a closer look at the Hokkaido statement reveals three critical piece of missing information.
First, the G8 chose not to specify a baseline year and so left open the question "at least 50% of what?" In climate-change circles, 1990 is most often used as the yardstick against which cuts are judged, but US emissions have increased by 16% between then and now. It is easy to see why the G8 left open this question - to get United States buy-in - but it renders their promise lame before it has even entered the race.
Also in openDemocracy on the G8 summit in Japan:
Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008),
Ann Pettifor, "The G8 in a global mess: 1920s and 1980s lessons" (7 July 2008),
Noriko Hama, "The recycling of the G8: ghosts at the table" (11 July 2008).
Second, the G8's emissions-reduction ambitions are global. What this implies is that the US and the European Union, China and India - and everywhere else, all the way to Burkina Faso - have (at a minimum) to halve their emissions by 2050. The leading countries of the global south who were invited to Hokkaido for talks - Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa (the self-styled G5) - were, understandably, very quick to highlight this inequity.
While much is said and written about rapidly rising emissions in these and other developing countries, they are still arriviste emitters. In historical terms it is the United States, Britain, and Germany that have done more than others to over-saturate the atmosphere with carbon. Even now, citizens of the EU emit twice per head than their Chinese neighbours and are many times wealthier.
Third, while a long-term target for cutting emissions is an important political reference-point, policy today would be influenced much more keenly by shorter-term targets. In 2007, the United Nations's climate experts challenged leaders of industrialised countries to set 2020 reduction targets of between 25% and 40% below 1990 levels. The G8 have not risen to this challenge.
A thinking cap
These omissions of detail may prove politically unwise as well unhelpful to the international talks. The G5 states met up for their own summit before joining in the G8 discussions. This, as South Africa's environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk subsequently noted, produced more detail, clarity and - importantly - unity on climate change than the G8 meeting. For example, the G5 argue that industrialised nations ought to aim for an 80%-95% cut by 2050, leaving poorer nations with a much lighter load and more resources to lift people's standards of living.
openDemocracy writers debate the politics of climate change:
John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007),
Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007),
Oliver Tickell, "Live Earth's limits" (6 July 2007),
David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007),
Camilla Toulmin, "Bali: no time to lose" (30 November 2007),
openDemocracy writers, "Was Bali a success?" (18 December 2007),
Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007).
True, the very fact that Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa are relative newcomers to the league of high emitters and continue to emit less per capita gives them a certain right to demand more ambitious action from their G8 counterparts. But there is political ballast as well as moral force in their case: as well as being more financially liquid than Europe and the US, some of the G5 have more detailed plans for addressing climate change than some of the G8.
To remain relevant in these shifting circumstances, G8 leaders need to develop more active and coherent thinking that matches the initiative of their G5 counterparts. The latest scientific evidence suggests that even halving world emissions by 2050 (from a 1990 baseline) will fall some way short of avoiding dangerous climate change - but in working towards that much-heralded "50%" goal, what will matter politically is who takes what share of whatever cut is eventually seen as necessary. What does the G8 think? The small print at Hokkaido offers few clues.
A global network
The nub of this is that the politics of winning commitment from the developed world to ambitious emissions-reduction targets are very tough, especially during an economic downturn. The global north and south are divided by fear and mistrust, and an orthodoxy of economic competitiveness still eclipses most other considerations. It is here that civil society, including independent think-tanks, can play a crucial role in developing practical ideas that address the difficult political questions head on.
The US-based climate initiative EcoEquity, for example, has produced some revealing calculations of principle-based fair shares in its Greenhouse Development Rights proposal. The Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr), meanwhile, is bringing together some of the brightest and most influential analysts of climate policy from around the world in the Global Climate Network.
This collaboration between think-tanks in countries key to avoiding climate catastrophe will soon be hard at work helping to propose practical and positive solutions to the hard politics of action on climate change. We believe we can help governments beat a pathway towards an ambitious and fair post- 2012 agreement. But we must act fast, lest the devil takes possession not only of the detail but the entire soul of the climate-change debate.
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