A Fair Deal on Climate Change

The agreement on climate change reached at Heiligendamm by the G8 leaders merely sets the stage for the real debate to come: how will we divide up the diminishing capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our greenhouse gases?

The G8 leaders agreed to seek “substantial” cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and to give “serious consideration” to the goal of halving such emissions by 2050 – an outcome hailed as a triumph by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet the agreement commits no one to any specific targets, least of all the United States, whose president, George W. Bush, will no longer be in office in 2009, when the tough decisions have to be made.

One could reasonably ask why anyone thinks such a vague agreement is any kind of advance at all. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 189 countries, including the US, China, India, and all the European nations, signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, thereby agreeing to stabilize greenhouse gases “at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Fifteen years later, no country has done that. US per capita greenhouse gas emissions, already the highest of any major nation when Bush took office, have continued to rise. In March, a leaked Bush administration report showed that US emissions were expected to rise almost as fast over the next decade as they did during the previous decade. Now we have yet another agreement to do what these same nations said they would do 15 years ago. That’s a triumph?