Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 13 June 2005

Will G8 make progress on climate change?

Blurb:  The Group of 8 rich countries meet next month in Scotland, with climate change being a major agenda item.   Most leaders agree there must be a breakthrough for the needed urgent action to be taken.  But the United States is expected to block progress.  Will Prime Minister Blair at last succeed in getting President Bush to go along with him on at least this topic?


When the Group of 8 leaders meet early next month in Gleneagles in Scotland, the host, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hopes to get two important results:  a commitment to help African development, and a credible plan to combat climate change.

Blair would like to have a legacy of having done something good of world significance during his term of office, to offset the blemish to his image from having gone to war in Iraq.

The first of his G8 goals, to help Africa, appears to be going quite well.  Last weekend the G8 finance ministers met in London, with  initial reports of progress in plans for debt relief and aid for Africa.

Whether these constitute a real breakthrough, or are more in the nature of shifting one type of aid to another without a significant overall increase, will be subjected to deeper analysis in the next days.

Hopefully world leaders will vote to do give more space to African countries to get out of the trap of debt, lack of finance, and poor terms of trade.  Other poor countries outside of Africa also deserve similar treatment.

On the second goal, to get the rich countries to commit to seriously tackle the crisis of climate change, Blair appears to be having a tougher time.

The main reason is that the United States administration is unwilling to commit to a global framework of action.  President George Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol.  His government even challenges whether climate change is taking place or whether it is a serious problem.  

Emissions of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) which heat the world’s atmosphere, has gone up significantly in the US, when measures should have been taken to get them down.

When Blair met with Bush in Washington last week, he did not make progress in persuading the US to rejoin the global framework, which will remain weak without the US, as it is by far the greatest polluter. 

It should by now be no surprise why the US government is so reluctant to join the Kyoto Protocol and why it rejects the virtual world scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a genuine problem which is now at crisis proportions.

President Bush himself, his Vice President Dick Cheney and other key members of his administration were all linked to the oil industry before they took power in the White House.  They can be expected to protect oil interests. 

The main measure for controlling climate change is to cut the use of fossil fuels including oil, so the oil industry would like to portray  climate change as not a serious issue.

On 9 June, the London-based Guardian reported how a former oil industry lobbyist edited the Bush administration’s official policy papers on climate change to play down the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

As Chief of Staff for the White House environment council, Philip Cooney watered down government scientific papers on climate change and played up uncertainties.  Cooney, a law graduate with no scientific training, had performed a similar role in his previous job for the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group representing Exxon Mobil and oil companies that focuses on challenging the scientific consensus on climate change.

Documents released by the Government Accountability Project and published in New York Times show handwritten notes by Cooney deleting or editing paragraphs drafted by government scientists.

In a section assessing the evidence for climate change, he inserted “significant and fundamental” before the word “uncertainties.”   In another part, he put in the word “extremely” in the sentence:  “The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult.”   These were only two examples.

According to Kert Davies of Greenpeace USA, Conney is still doing his old job for the American Petroleum Institute, and that Institute is now working within the White House.  He said Cooney’s influence goes beyond manipulating documents, but is that of gatekeeper for White House climate policy, determining whose views are heard.

The consequences of this “policy capture” of US policy by the oil industry are serious indeed, since the national government will not curb emissions but likely allow them to increase.  Can the new set of commitments that will soon have to be made under the Kyoto Protocol be viable without US participation?

At the G8 Summit, Blair and perhaps a few other leaders will try to put some more pressure on Bush.  However, Blair has had a poor record of influencing Bush in the past, and hopefully the reverse will not happen instead, of Bush persuading Blair to drop the issue altogether.

Robin Cook, the former UK Foreign Secretary, says “it is a tragedy that at this moment in history the world has to negotiate with an American administration that is saturated in US oil interests…The test of success at the G8 summit on climate change is whether Bush is compelled to sign up to conclusions that accept there is a pressing problem and that the US must be part of the solution to it.”

A report of the International Climate Change Task Force, set up by the UK government to give an input to the G8 summit, has recommended a target to prevent global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level (in the year 1750).

Beyond the 2 degrees level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly.  Average temperature increases larger than this will entail substantial agricultural losses, widespread adverse impacts on health and water supply, imperil coral reefs, cause irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforest and risk the loss of West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, with massive sea level rise.

The task force says that the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere should not exceed 400 parts per million (ppm), which is the level associated with limiting the increase in global average temperature to 2 degrees.

Since the carbon dioxide concentration (which was 379 ppm in March 2004) is likely to rise above 400 ppm in coming decades, action is urgently needed to reduce emissions.

The figures will have to be worked out, as to how much gas emission reduction is required overall to bring the carbon dioxide level down at least to 400 ppm in the future. From that overall figure, it has then to be discussed what are the maximum levels of emissions each country is permitted to have, and the rates of emission reductions that each country has to achieve, within a specific time frame.

The present Kyoto Protocol obliges only developed countries be required to make binding commitments.  So far they are far behind in meeting present commitments.

The US wants developing countries to also commit to reducing emissions, but they are refusing to do so until the developed countries meet their commitments, and unless an  equitable system is worked out.  This could be based, for example, on the principle that each person is entitled to a certain level of emission and that reductions should come in only when a country has exceeded its right to the level of permitted per capita emission.

The politics of climate change will undoubtedly see its next big chapter at the G8 Summit.  How it will play out is anybody’s guess at this point.