Michael McCarthy: An agreement with no commitments

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The Independent Online

Be thankful for small mercies: that's one way of looking at the G8 "agreement" issued yesterday. At least the rich nations are all agreed that climate change is a problem that needs to be tackled. And on first sight it seems they're going further, by saying we agree to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases by at least half by 2050.

Never mind that many scientists would tell you this is not remotely enough. At least it seems a significant step. But is it?

Consider the exact language of the communiqué. The G8 nations say: "We seek to share with all parties to the UNFCCC [the United Nations climate change convention] the vision of, and together with them to consider and adopt in the UNFCCC negotiations, the goal of achieving at least 50 per cent reduction of global emissions by 2050."

Language in such communiqués can be pretty convoluted, but it doesn't get much more convoluted than that. If we rigorously break the sentence down into its component parts, we discover that the rich countries' current attitude to the goal of at least halving emissions by 2050 is: to seek to consider and adopt it.

Not: we adopt that goal. But: we will seek to consider and adopt that goal. The statement commits no one to any sort of action. The year 2050 can come and go, and if you're the US president, even if you've not done a thing, you can protest that you are still seeking to consider and adopt that goal, it's just that you haven't yet finished your seeking.

The diplomatic nightmare at any major international conference is that there might be a split declaration at the end, and clearly, the extraordinary elasticity of the language in the current G8 statement is designed to preserve the appearance of agreement. But equally clearly, it papers over some very wide differences, principally between European countries and the US, with the US still stubbornly resisting the idea of any sort unilateral leadership role in acting to cut emissions. America insists on seeing China and India, rapidly becoming its competitors, pledge to cut their emissions before it will promise cuts of its own, and that too is made clear in an earlier sentence, once you decode it: "Achieving this objective will only be possible through common determination of all major economies."

An even greater drawback in yesterday's not-quite-a-pledge is the absence of a baseline for the reductions. Halving which global emissions by 2050? The emissions of 1990, on which the Kyoto protocol is based? The emissions of 2000? Today's emissions? The emissions of 2049? Without a baseline, the whole concept is meaningless.