Despite The New York Times Naysayers, International Climate Talks Are Progressing

Our guest blogger is Andrew Light, a Senior Fellow at American Progress specializing in climate, energy, and science policy.

If you believe recent media reports, the two international climate change meetings held last week in L’Aquila, Italy, at best failed to do anything and at worst signal that no serious progress will be made on a global climate agreement this year. If true, this is bad news. According to the byzantine rules of the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012, a successor to that treaty must be decided this December at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen.

The good news is that many of the assessments of these meetings are incomplete, if not inaccurate. A New York Times editorial last week described the recognition by the world’s major carbon emitters that temperatures should not increase more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as an “aspirational” goal. They concluded:

But with global climate talks in Copenhagen only five months away, aspirational goals won’t carry things very far.

However, the Times based its argument in language from a draft of a declaration — not from the document itself. This weakened, “aspirational” language was struck in the final version of the document, rendering this claim obsolete.


All in all, the twin declarations emerging from the G-8 and the Major Economies Forum (MEF) indicate that progress has been made on the road to Copenhagen. So why the rush to publish such dour reports from Italy, whether accurate or not? It’s simple: Invested parties had unrealistic expectations of meetings, which have no binding impact on the upcoming U.N. summit.

There were, of course, disappointments. Developed countries in the G-8 failed to agree on the medium-term goal of reducing reductions targets by 2020. Developing nations, especially China and India, refused to embrace the long-term goal of halving global emissions by 2050, a cap most of the world’s leading scientists believe is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

But if we only focus on what did not happen, we miss seeing the achievements made in a very short amount of time. When the United States rejoined the global discussion on a new climate treaty in January, it triggered an 11-month countdown to solve the most complicated problem humanity has ever faced. For the 16 countries responsible for 80 percent of carbon emissions to recognize even one marker of failure — a rise in temperature over 2 degrees Celcius — is fantastically impressive. A week before the Italy meetings, negotiators doubted that this language would make the final cut.

Some will argue that it’s easy to agree on an abstract target like limiting planetary warming. But the G-8 struck an appropriate balance in creating objectives that are both ambitious and achievable. Industrialized countries finally determined their fair share of long-term emissions cuts: 80 percent by 2050. Plus, U.S. President Barack Obama prudently hedged on setting a 2020 emissions target. The Markey-Waxman climate change bill, which includes emissions cuts, is working its way through Congress. While it does, the president should not signal that he will preempt or undercut the legislature.

What about China and India’s apparent intransigence to halving emissions by 2050? The fact is that the United States cannot criticize their behavior. If a Chinese leader had promised to join the world eight years ago in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and then reversed course — as former President George W. Bush did in 2001 — the United States would hardly agree to his demands now. So it is with China and India. It will take incentives, diplomacy, and, most of all, time to bring about world-saving targets from them.


Ultimately, the most promising parts of last week’s agreements received only marginal coverage. The MEF announced that developed countries will double clean-energy funding for developing nations — putting pressure on those countries to commit to emissions reductions in exchange, as agreed upon at the Bali summit in 2007. Additionally, the participating countries agreed to determine how they will finance their plans by the G-20 meeting in September.

The countries assembled last week didn’t get everything settled on the first go around. But in light of their accomplishments, we should hold off on our rush to proclaim failure.


At Show Me Progress, Campus Progress intern Brett Marler relates how Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) used the excuse of “China and India’s lack of cooperation in climate change negotiations” at the G8 summit to defend her opposition to strong clean energy legislation:

Launching into my main argument, I framed strong climate change legislation as key to the success (and perhaps survival) of my generation. I wanted her to understand that young people perceive the issue from a future in which we must live and be successful. I argued that without a transition into a clean energy system, our country would be not only contributing to a global stagnation in climate efforts, but would be hurting our own economic competitiveness, as well.

She listened politely, then in an empathetic voice asked how we felt about China and India’s lack of cooperation in climate change negotiations, referring to the recent G8 summit in Italy. Our delegation of young people in the room clearly were on a different page than her, and responded with enthusiasm that we’d rather start the clean energy transition than follow (in more eloquent words, citing strong investment by China into alternative energy).


,Despite what Sen. McCaskill believes, as the Washington Post reports, Kyoto signatory India announced a comprehensive plan to tackle its emissions in June 2008:

But India hopes to move from near-zero to 20,000 megawatts of solar electricity by 2020, as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Announced in June 2008, the plan is a structured response to combat global warming and part of a proposal India intends to pitch at a climate change summit in Copenhagen this December.