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G-8 Vows to Cut Emissions but Divisions Remain

July 9, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Leaders of the Group of Eight nations agreed Tuesday to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050. But on Wednesday, a group of five emerging economies refused to sign the deal, saying they want more aggressive emissions cuts. A reporter examines the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Leaders of the world’s largest economies, known as the G-8, concluded their meeting in Japan with a pledge to fight climate change. The countries agreed in principle to reduce global emissions by at least half by the year 2050.

That group includes the United States, which pledged to try meeting that goal for the first time. President Bush spoke afterwards.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We made it clear and the other nations agreed that they must also participate in an ambitious goal with interim goals and interim plans to enable the world to successfully address climate change. And we made progress, significant progress toward a comprehensive approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But key developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, were not willing to sign on to the same targets. And there were plenty of critics who said the pledge was too vague, nonbinding, and were frustrated that deep cuts would not take effect for years.

One of those critics was the chairman of the U.N. panel that issued a series of reports on the impacts of climate change, Rajendra Pachauri.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI, Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: I mean, what kinds of deep cuts? There’s no point in only focusing on 2050 if you’re not going to pay any attention to immediate targets and immediate actions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, for more on this agreement, let’s turn to Andrew Revkin. He covers climate and the environment for the New York Times and he writes the climate change blog for the paper, Dot Earth.

Andrew Revkin, first, let’s talk about the summit of the industrialized countries, the United States, Germany, France, and the others. What in brief did they agree to do about climate change?

ANDREW REVKIN, New York Times: Well, it’s kind of nuanced. They pledged essentially to work with the rest of the world’s countries toward eventually cutting emissions, all global emissions from every country, in half by 2050, but there are a significant number of waffle words. It’s not the equivalent of “they will cut.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: So waffle words, how much teeth is there in that?

ANDREW REVKIN: There’s no teeth. It’s literally aspirational. That word shows up a couple of times.

Now, again, this is still meaningful, because until now, since I’ve been covering this stuff since the late ’80s, when countries started talking about it, and back then they couldn’t even come up with a number, in terms of what kind of cut in emissions would be needed.

So moving from the language back to 1992, which was all the nations of the world basically pledged to avoid what they called dangerous human interference with the climate system, now at least there’s a number floating out there for what actually would still be just the first step. Cutting the gases in half doesn’t stop the amount in the atmosphere from still rising.

White House shift on climate change

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much of a shift in this on the part of the United States, the Bush administration?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, if you go back to the beginnings of the administration, it's really a big shift. Back then, the president asked the National Academy of Sciences, you know, what the thinking was on climate. He asked them to focus on what we don't know.

And there are still significant uncertainties in how this is going to play out, how warm it's going to get, how quickly. And the administration for years focused on the unknowns more than what had already been established and really did not put forward an aggressive sense of a need to cut emissions, to work on energy efficiency, to do things that other countries started to push ahead on.


ANDREW REVKIN: Now there is this commitment. The president has made for the last couple of years -- he's gotten much more serious in his rhetoric about the reality that climate change unfettered, if it just keeps going, will pose dangers to humanity and that things have to be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why that evolution?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, the science has evolved. The administration would and has said that they're just following the science.

There's been several iterations of these big reports that have come out from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That's the -- where Rajendra Pachauri had headed. And this started 20 years ago.

Again, I wrote about this starting before there was an IPCC, as it's called. And each one of their reports -- four of them over 20 years -- each has gotten somewhat more definitive about where we're headed with rising seas and warming temperatures.

And the administration also is undergoing political pressure, not only at home because of, you know, what happened after Al Gore's movie, this issue kind of percolated, and then also internationally, this has been a real hot-button issue that's separated the administration from Europe and from Japan, in some cases.

Rising nations' financial incentive

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, bringing it up to now, there was a second summit, this one involving developing countries, China, India, Brazil. Tell us what they agreed to and what they didn't agree to.

ANDREW REVKIN: This second day was engineered by the president. He announced last year that he felt it was essential to get a broader global consensus on global warming, to really work with the countries that are most responsible for the emissions.

And that's not just the established industrial powers, but also China, India, Brazil, the ones that are emerging as big forces in the greenhouse. And so they had this extra day.

There has been a lot of advanced talks to lead up to what was just a few hours of discussion among leaders. And they came out with a separate declaration. It's even more nuanced, and subtle, and conditional than the one from the Group of Eight the day before, which had some numbers about money, investments and things.

And this one really, the thing that wasn't there that the president had sought when he announced this last year was having the big emitters from the developing world join with the rich, established powers in this common goal in the long run of cutting emissions deeply by mid-century. The developing countries are still not willing to go there.


ANDREW REVKIN: They feel that the gases that are already in the atmosphere, the addition of CO-2, carbon dioxide, and the other greenhouse gases that are up there now that have accumulated and are already palpably changing climate, according to most scientists, they felt that, look, you guys have been at this for 150 years burning fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with more of these gases, so we need -- and our main focus right now is economic growth and prosperity, so we need some wiggle room.

And they say, "You step first, and we'll follow." On my blog, on Dot Earth, I described it as that old Alphonse and Gaston comedy routine, you know, "Oh, no, sir, you go first," that kind of thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they're also saying, if they're given some help, some financial help, money, they may be willing to move.

ANDREW REVKIN: Along with saying that the established powers have to act first to curb emissions, yes. The poorer countries are saying, if you want us to get serious ahead of time on doing stuff, you're going to have to essentially help pay for the difference.

In other words, if we're going to put in -- invest in a power plant that's 20 percent more efficient, meaning you get more energy and less emissions, and that costs more, then that money should really come from the established, industrialized countries.

Fossil fuels caused global damage

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Andrew Revkin, if you talk about bottom lines here, how much of an advance has been made over the last few days? I mean, what happens next?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, this whole process is a slow one. The scientists I've been talking to for 20 years about this, they're very frustrated. They feel they've laid out the science as clearly as possible, including the uncertainties, and, you know, it's like you don't run a red light because you know the truck's coming. You run a red light because -- you don't run a red light because you don't want to get into accident or get arrested.

They feel that the risk management formula here is clear that the world needs to act and they just kind of can't get it.

But the biggest problem is that we're wedded to fossil fuels. They are the driver of economic activity. They have been for 150 years. And they will be for decades to come, according to most energy analysts.

So moving away from the fuels of convenience, as I've called them, more rapidly than we might otherwise do -- and, of course, these are ultimately finite fuels -- costs. It's something that diverts you from business as usual.

And that takes effort, takes sustained effort. It will take new technologies, which were hinted at in these agreements, but not with money, at least not a lot of money. And that, again, has a lot of scientists concerned that this really doesn't amount to a lot of progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you do have the leaders of these countries saying, "We think it's important." And that's a first that they've all come together on that.

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, David Victor, an analyst at Stanford, told me just a few hours ago in an e-mail that -- he said, when they're arguing a lot, he said, that's actually a good sign, because that means they're seriously engaged in this.

And so if that's the best we can do, in terms of looking for good news, I think it's at least a sign that the world is seriously engaged and sort of reckoning where this is going to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Andrew Revkin with the New York Times, we appreciate it.