By Michael A. Fletcher and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 10, 2009
L'AQUILA, Italy, July 9 -- Leaders of the world's major economies on Thursday formally embraced limiting the rise in the Earth's average temperatures but declined to set numerical targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
The declaration by the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, a group of 17 countries that account for nearly four-fifths of the world's greenhouse-gas production, reflects a tension between developed and developing countries that is hampering efforts to combat climate change, even as many scientists say the need to address it is becoming more urgent.
"It is no small task for 17 leaders to bridge their differences on an issue like climate change," President Obama, who co-chaired the forum, said on the second day of the three-day meeting. "We each have our national priorities and politics to contend with."
The countries promised to take verifiable steps to cut carbon emissions and cooperate on funding research to develop clean-energy technologies. They acknowledged a growing scientific consensus that average global temperatures should not rise more than 3.6 degrees above average levels of more than a century ago, before large-scale industrial pollution occurred. But they would not set long-term goals for reducing carbon emissions or timetables for making the changes necessary to keep temperatures in check.
The gulf between the two sides remains wide: Rich countries want poor countries to cut emissions. But poor countries want rich countries to go first, and to subsidize their conversion to fuels that emit little carbon.
"Each of our nations comes to the table with different needs, different priorities, different levels of development," Obama said. "And developing nations have real and understandable concerns about the role they will play in these efforts. They want to make sure that they do not have to sacrifice their aspirations for development and higher living standards."
The forum's declaration came one day after leaders of the world's eight largest economies agreed to the goal of reducing their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. But the Group of Eight nations declined to set any more immediate targets for combating climate change, disappointing environmentalists and frustrating leaders of developing countries who see rich nations as unwilling to make the sacrifices they ask of others.
Environmentalists and developing countries also say that rich countries became rich in part by using fossil fuels such as coal and oil to increase industrial expansion and living standards. Developing nations are wary of undercutting their own economic growth by turning away from relatively cheap fossil fuels, the leading culprit in climate change.
China, India and other developing countries say that "if you're not going to really help us, then we're not going to put ourselves on the hook" by agreeing to make specific cuts in emissions, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. "They didn't see us as being serious" about providing funding to ease the transition to a lower-emissions economy, he said.
Obama called on finance ministers from the wealthiest nations to formulate plans for funding worldwide emissions reductions and bring them to a meeting of the Group of 20 countries in Pittsburgh in September. That could provide countries such as Brazil, China, India and Mexico with significant money to help pay for the technology required to reduce emissions.
Despite the absence of concrete goals, some environmentalists said the forum's action was cause for optimism.
"What you have now is the world, collectively, shooting for holding temperatures below what scientists kind of consider the tipping point" for some of the worst effects of climate change, said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But he and others said the only punishment for not reaching that goal would be peer pressure and public opinion.
Some scientists say the goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures may already be out of reach. Researchers have said that greenhouse gases already emitted will stay in the atmosphere for centuries or longer and that heat absorbed into the ocean will not easily dissipate.
"The climate will hit two degrees, no matter what," said Inez Fung, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment at the University of California. Drastic action may slow the rise in temperatures, she said, but most likely "we will be there by the end of the century."
Fahrenthold reported from Washington.