On climate, it's Washington v. Beijing

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.

Two previous meetings of the MEF this year proved equally unsuccessful. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has already held two major negotiations at its Bonn, Germany headquarters this year without significant progress on key issues like reducing emissions from developing economies. A major U.N. summit in Poznan, Poland last December also fell short of its goals.

The last time Italy hosted the G8 summit, in 2001, then-U.S. President George W. Bush made headlines when he declared that his country — the world's largest polluter at that time — would not ratify the Kyoto treaty in part because it did not require large developing countries such as China and India to take on binding obligations. Bush said that if the U.S. signed on, it would find itself at a competitive disadvantage compared with fast-growing emerging economies that could develop without restriction.

Two years ago, China passed the U.S. to become the world's largest polluter; India is third on that list. Without including China, India and other large developing economies such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, any international plan to reduce worldwide emissions levels would be futile. But those countries argue that it is unfair to penalize their industrial development when richer nations were able to pollute unimpeded when their economies matured.

The result has evolved into a staring match between the two camps — with the world's two largest polluters both aware that the process cannot move forward without them. Each side refuses to take any short- or medium-term steps unless the other moves first.

The U.N. process has created a framework for a fund to help poor countries pay for efforts aimed at adapting to climate change. That — along with other efforts to bring environmentally friendly technologies to poor countries — is seen as a way to level the playing field by reducing the impact that addressing climate change would have on developing nations. But so far, those initiatives have mostly gone unfunded.

Most commentary about the process has tried to cast the divide as rich countries v. poor, or perhaps the north v. the south. But for good or bad, the fate of the massive climate change process depends on how differences between Washington and Beijing are resolved.

More on climate change:

Forecast: The global consequences of climate change

Climate negotiations stagnate at G8

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