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On climate, it's Washington v. Beijing

The Major Economies Forum ends without achieving its goal for an agreement on global warming.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and U.S. President Barack Obama make a statement on the environment at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, July 9, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

L'AQUILA, Italy — Another international meeting that opened with high hopes for progress on  climate change ended July 10 without much to show for those efforts. The outcome made it increasingly likely that an agreement will depend less on well-intentioned international meetings and more on decisions made behind closed doors in the U.S. and China.

At the conclusion of the three-day Group of Eight summit, hopes were dashed that major developing countries such as China and India could be cajoled into committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by placing the targets a generation away, in 2050.

The Major Economies Forum, or MEF — a 17-nation group created by U.S. President Barack Obama that met twice during the G8 talks — had hoped to convince developing countries in the group to agree to reduce emissions by 50 percent compared to a post-1990 baseline year of their choosing. Over a similar period, wealthy G8 countries would agree to reduce emissions by 80 percent.

In the end, China and India balked at the 2050 target. As a result, the centerpiece of the MEF was reduced to a pledge to cap global warming at no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a largely unenforceable goal whose success or failure could never be the responsibility of a single country or group of countries.

For their part, G8 countries did agree to reduce emissions levels by 80 percent, as promised. But even that is an empty goal. The target included no intermediate targets, and it is unlikely that any of the G8 leaders who signed the promise will be alive in 41 years when success or failure of the agreement will become official. And with no built-in sanctions, the agreement is probably as likely to achieve its desired results as the beleaguered Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol, which was finalized in 1997, required 40 countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2 percent compared to 1990 levels during the period that started at the beginning of last year and runs until the end of 2012. Only 16 of those 40 countries had reduced emissions by the end of 2008 and the 13 biggest reductions came from countries that were at least in part members of the former Warsaw Pact, which saw emissions plummet in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union's economy. In comparison, the 27 non-Warsaw Pact countries have seen emissions increase an average of 14 percent since 1990.

The G8 summit in L'Aquila wasn't the first failed attempt to pave the way for a more effective agreement to take over when Kyoto's compliance period ends on Dec. 31, 2012.