By Craig Whitlock and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 9, 2009
L'AQUILA, Italy, July 8 -- The world's leading industrial nations tentatively agreed Wednesday to try to prevent global temperatures from rising above a fixed level, after a more far-reaching proposal to slash production of greenhouse gases fizzled, according to U.S. and European negotiators.
Leaders meeting here for the Group of Eight summit said they would pledge to keep temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above average levels of more than a century ago, before large-scale industrial pollution occurred.
Temperatures have already risen by nearly half that amount, leaving little wiggle room. It was unclear what mechanisms, if any, would be adopted to enforce the target.
Some environmental groups saw the announcement as a weak nod at the obvious.
"This was such an opportunity," said Tobias Muenchmeyer, a Berlin-based activist with the group Greenpeace. "We are very disappointed that the result is so limited."
For other groups, the best that could be said of Wednesday's declaration was that, although it did not commit countries to specific cuts in greenhouse gases, it appeared to create a moral imperative to do so eventually.
"It may be symbolic now," said David Hamilton of the Sierra Club. But, he added, "if we have a commitment to a temperature goal, then you're actually going to figure out how we're going to get there."
The tentative deal on climate change was one of several agreements to come out of the summit's first day. The leaders also agreed to a statement denouncing Iran for its recent crackdown on election protesters and expressing growing impatience with its nuclear program.
"It reflects a real sense of urgency by all of us," said Undersecretary of State William Burns. "It is an unanimous expression of all eight leaders' serious concern about the situation."
The leaders also ratified President Obama's proposal to hold a nuclear security summit in Washington next March. The gathering, which administration officials said would involve about 25 nations, would focus on ways to limit the threat of nuclear proliferation.
Climate change will remain on the agenda as the Group of Eight meeting expands Thursday to include members of rapidly developing nations, which have deep concerns about global efforts to limit carbon emissions.
Earlier, negotiators from 17 countries rejected a draft agreement to halve the global production of greenhouse gases by 2050. Under that plan, the United States, Japan and many European countries would have been required to cut gases even more, by 80 percent.
Although European negotiators and many environmental advocates favored that proposal, it failed to win approval from India and China, whose leaders have argued that they could still end up with an unfair share of the burden at a time when their economies are expanding rapidly. China rivals the United States as the world's No. 1 producer of greenhouse gases, and India's production is soaring.
"The failure to make any progress towards resolving the deep split among the G-8 countries on the emissions-cuts need by 2020 is troubling," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. ". . . In short, the G-8 summit reflects a tremendous missed opportunity."
The White House said it supports the goal of slashing greenhouse gases in half by 2050, including the required 80 percent cuts for industrialized nations such as the United States. Obama administration officials told reporters that the Group of Eight would probably endorse the plan on a nonbinding basis.
Environmental groups, however, said the endorsement would prove largely meaningless without support from China and India.
Several developing nations, including China and India, have been invited to the summit. But they are not officially part of the exclusive club, which was formed decades ago when Europe, Japan and the United States dominated the global economy.
Attempts to persuade China to agree to a climate-change deal were dealt a setback when Chinese President Hu Jintao left Italy abruptly Tuesday and flew home to deal with deadly violence in the western province of Xinjiang, which has resulted in at least 156 deaths.
Hu had been scheduled to meet with Obama in L'Aquila on Thursday morning. Later Thursday, Obama is scheduled to chair a meeting of the Major Economies Forum, a 17-nation group that accounts for nearly four-fifths of the world's greenhouse-gas production.
Summit negotiators had hoped to win a stronger agreement on climate change to build momentum for a global treaty that will be discussed at a U.N. conference in Copenhagen in December.
Wednesday's agreement dampened hopes for a breakthrough before that gathering, which is aimed at producing a global agreement to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
"The bad news is that there's only six months left," said Sarah O. Ladislaw, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There is a sort of a rising sense of anxiety about how little time there is to get such big agreements in place."
Staff writer David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.