With the G8 wrapping up climate change talks in Rome and failing to reach agreement with developing nations on near-term targets for emissions reductions, I talked to Duncan Marsh, the Conservancy’s director of international climate policy, about the agreements G8 nations were able to reach and what the meeting means for the future of international climate change negotiations.

Q: The G8 nations endorsed limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, and to reduce emissions from industrialized countries by 80% by 2050.  Are these pledges just symbolic, or will they actually catalyze commitments to actual emissions cuts in the near-term?

Duncan Marsh: This decision creates an important baseline for future negotiations. By committing to this target, negotiators can now move on to, “How do we get there?” and begin looking at emission reduction targets that will achieve this goal.  All future commitments can be measured by whether they are perceived to help achieve those goals.

That said there’s a lot of wiggle room included in this commitment. The G8 did not agree an ambitious near-term reduction target for 2020, which is critically important and has been called for by developing nations. Instead, the G8 agreed that developed countries would reduce their emissions by 80 percent by 2050. These are good long-term goals, but we need a strong goal for 2020 to win the fight against climate change.

These near-term goals will likely not be set until the United States can make a commitment, and that won’t happen outside of the legislative process happening in Congress. Now more than ever, action by the US Congress has a chance to impact the fate of the world. It is an enormous responsibility.

Q: Developing nations such as China, India and Brazil are refusing to commit to cuts in specific greenhouse gas emissions without first seeing financial concessions and near-term pledges to cut emissions from developed nations. Is this refusal damaging to the Copenhagen process, or is it just another step in the negotiations?

Duncan Marsh: This is a step in a very complex negotiation process. While it’s disappointing a more tangible agreement could not be reached with the developing countries during this meeting, the G8 summit put the issues on the table and gave leaders at the highest level the opportunity to discuss meaningful targets for reductions as well as important issues like reducing emissions from deforestation and adaptation.

Near-term targets from developed countries are one of the keys to unlock these negotiations. The five most advanced developing nations – which include Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa – have called on developed countries to “commit themselves to… reducing their emissions in aggregate by at least 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2020.

This is a bit of a catch-22, because the United States will not commit to mid-term targets until the legislative process is completed. It’s critically important for the United States to show leadership now and pass meaningful climate change legislation before the Copenhagen summit to identify what near-term targets the US can offer.

If Congress can get this done and a bill is signed into law by President Obama it will be easier to get developing nations – especially China and India – to make their own commitments. While these countries cannot be expected to commit to definite mid-term targets like the ones expected of the United States and other major historic emitters, it is important that the major developing countries also take meaningful actions to reduce the growth of their emissions since most future emissions growth is expected in the developing world.

Q: It’s six months and counting to Copenhagen. Given yesterday’s developments, is there still enough time to reach a meaningful global agreement at the December meetings?

Duncan Marsh: Yes. As I’ve already noted, some of the long-term goals are starting to come into focus. There are also other important issues outside of emissions reductions targets that are starting to take shape. For example, the G8 leaders are strongly supporting efforts to reduce global deforestation, which causes close to 20 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions

What we need now are the real mid-term emissions reductions targets, as well as a substantial financial assistance package that will help the most vulnerable countries deal with the impacts of climate change and move toward a low-carbon development pathway.

Q: What can citizens do — if anything — to help move this process along?

Duncan Marsh: We need to encourage all of our leaders – from local city council members to business leaders all the way up to Congressmen and Senators – to take a leadership position in fighting climate change. Without U.S. leadership there will be no global agreement on climate change.

Voting for climate change legislation – especially in our current economic situation – is not easy. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

But, according to projections, the current legislation will cost the average American family less than 50 cents a day and low-income families will see an annual savings on their electric bill. And these numbers don’t include the money that will be saved through the bill’s efficiency provision, which could save households up to $170 a year by 2020.  This modest investment will lead to billions of dollars in savings for America by helping to set a course to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The bill will also invest billions of dollars in the development and deployment of clean energy jobs across the country.

What citizens can do is educate themselves on the provisions of the legislation and the true science of climate change which shows that changes are not only inevitable under current emissions levels, but are already happening. Look at the evidence, look at the changes in weather patterns around you and think of the world we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.

We need to support U.S. climate change legislation, we need to support an international agreement on climate change and we need to support the leaders – the men and women in the House of Representatives and the Senate – who have shown the wisdom to cast a vote for this legislation. Without their vote there will be no meaningful U.S. or international action on climate change.

(Image: Protesters at the G8 summit in Italy. Credit: Oxfam through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. RE “what’s next….”
    To reach agreement…..
    Focus on the problem.
    Deal directly with relevant emissions.
    No Cap and Trade emission trading.
    No energy efficiency regulation…..

    Given the unproven emission reduction effects on global temperature – and the expense of emission reduction – the key is to engage in activities valuable in themselves, which also keep on track with emission reduction targets at minimal business disruption and expense.

    Emission reduction could therefore also be much simpler, and easier to agree on – without emission trading complicating international trade relations.

    Sufficient first phase 2020/2030 emission reduction is achieved by acting on ELECTRICITY generation (coal, gas) and TRANSPORT (mainly automobiles) alone, since these 2 sectors typically (as in the USA) account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions.

    The focus on electricity and transport gives several advantages:

    1. Local environmental benefit from less pollution of sulphur and all else that’s in the emissions, regardless of the less certain or immediate global benefit from CO2 reduction.

    2. Electricity supply alternatives which together with improved grid distribution gives better competition and keeps down electricity bills for consumers.

    3. Transport alternatives (using electricity, hydrogen and other energy sources), which give variety of choice and competition advantages for consumers, additionally reducing the dependency on oil imports.

    4. No trade problems: Unlike Cap and Trade, which involves cement, steel and other industries having to face imports from unregulated countries, the here suggested electricity and transport changes are not just more limited, but also largely local. Since there is little competition between say utility companies internationally, “best practice” results can be compared and shared.

    Funding and Impact
    Equity and long term loan finance can be used: Long term industrial loans from financial institutions, particularly if federal/state guaranteed, give low yearly interest repayments and lessen the effect on electricity bills or transport cost.

    Compare with
    today’s all-encompassing Cap and Trade (emission trading) suggestions, with unpredictability, expense, and needless disruption from normal business practice on one hand, or unnecessary profiteering from free allowance handouts with little actual emission reduction on the other hand – together with extensive -and unnecessary- regulation on what people can or can’t buy and use.

    Understanding why proposed Cap and Trade is bad, in USA and elsewhere
    Basic Idea — Offsets — Tree Planting — Manufacture Shift — Fair Trade — Surreal Market — Real Market — Allowances: Auctions + Hand-Outs — Allowance Trading — Companies: Business Stability + Business Cost — In Conclusion

    The Way Forward
    Introduction — Funding and Impact —No Energy Efficiency Regulation — A New Electric World
    Electricity Generation — Distribution
    Transport Power Generation — Regulation — Taxation

  2. While I’m saddened by the fact that world leaders failed to move forward on critical climate change targets, it must be noted that this issue is the most complex ever faced by the planet, as each country is in a different stage of development and it has become extremely difficult to apply any sort of fairness doctrine to CO2 reductions.

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