Anything looks bad if the bar's set too high -- the G-8 included

Its detractors should note: the L'Aquila conference did move vital climate change legislation forward.

By Andrew Light

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 on Friday, for instance, based its argument in language from a draft of a declaration -- not from the document itself. The Times 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 that "with global climate talks in Copenhagen only five months away, aspirational goals won't carry things very far." But 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.

Andrew Light is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., and director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University.

Photo: Flickr user AmiCalmant