Experts: (Climate) Talk Is Cheap

As G-8 countries touted an accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, environmental policy experts lamented that it may be too little too late to affect global warming.

Late Monday night at a summit in Japan, the G-8 countries -- the United States, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Italy -- released a declaration on global warming that called for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. The statement also called upon the global community, including the so-called "plus five" -- China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico -- to contribute to reducing greenhouse emissions.

"This global challenge can only be met by a global response, in particular, by the contributions from all major economies," according to the statement.

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Environmental policy analysts blasted the "50-50" agreement as a nonbinding idea with little heft or bite.

"Frankly, the G-8 is not a very influential body," said Rob Bradley, the director of the international climate policy initiative at the World Research Institute. "G-8 declarations do not tend to lead to any radical change in behavior. ... Given that the G-8's largest member is being run by an administration on its way out ... I think there's a lot of reason to be skeptical whether the G-8 announcement is going to mean very much."

According to Bradley, despite the big numbers tossed around -- such as $10 billion annually in government-funded energy research and development -- the agreement breaks no new ground.

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"Governments have always spent money on R&D in the energy sector. To say that when you add it up, it's 10 billion -- it sounds big -- it's in fact more of a damning number than an encouraging one," he said. "The overwhelming message is the politics is still well behind the science."

The science behind the agreement is what's particularly troubling for many environmental policy experts.

The Kyoto Protocol, as well as many European countries, uses the levels of greenhouse gases in 1990 as a baseline, or starting point, in quantifying reductions in carbon emissions. In other words, a law calling for a reduction in carbon emissions by 50 percent translates to a 50 percent reduction from 1990's level.

The absence of any baseline level in the G-8 agreement makes the goals much less hard-hitting and quantifiable, according to Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director at the National Resources Defense Council.

"The 1990 levels would have been really crucial," Schmidt said. "I think it is definitely a failure of leadership at a crucial time in sending signals about what the international response to this is going to be."

Both Bradley and Schmidt questioned the timing of the goals themselves.

"The 'bold commitment' is something that's relatively easy to commit to for a political leadership that won't be around in that time frame," he said.

Even if today's levels of greenhouse gases were specified as a baseline, a 50 percent reduction still isn't enough to make any real difference, according to David Downie, head of the global roundtable for climate change at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

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