Under pressure to boost talks on a new global warming pact, Group of Eight environment ministers on Monday endorsed slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half by mid-century, but failed to agree on much more contentious near-term targets.
The three-day meeting in Kobe was dominated by calls from the U.N., European countries and developing nations to move forward on setting targets for cutting emissions by 2020. Scientists say those targets are needed to avoid the worst effects of global warming.
But the ministers from the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Italy and Russia, in a carefully worded statement, mentioned only the need to set such targets eventually. That frustrated environmentalists and some European ministers.
"From a scientific point of view, we need a clear reduction target, because the next 20 years are very vital, very important for climate change and the decisions we make in this process," said Matthias Machnig, Germany's state minister for environment.
Meeting to set the state
The Kobe meeting was meant to set the stage for the G8 summit in Toyako, Japan, in July. Tokyo has put climate change at the center of the agenda, and many are hoping for a strong signal from the summit to push forward wider international talks on global warming.
In their statement, the ministers said there was "strong political will" to reach agreement at the summit to cut emissions 50 percent by 2050. The statement also cited the need for global gas emissions to peak within the next 10 to 20 years, and it called on developing countries with rapidly expanding greenhouse gas emissions to work to curb the rate of increase.
"As we head toward the Toyako summit, I believe this meeting has provided momentum," said Japanese Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita.
The ministers also acknowledged developing nations' demands for help in financing and technology transfer to become more energy efficient, develop their economies more cleanly, and adapt to changes wrought by warming, such as rising sea levels.
The U.N. launched negotiations late last year on a new climate change pact to take over when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. Negotiators face a deadline of December 2009, when some 190 nations will meet in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Deep divisions, however, have plagued the talks.
European nations support a U.N. scientific finding that emissions cuts of between 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020 are needed to stop global temperatures from rising so high they trigger widespread environmental damage. The United States, however, considers such cuts beyond reach, while Japan says it's premature to commit to 2020 limits. Developing nations are clamoring for commitments by rich countries before they discuss what poorer countries should do.
Environmentalists were disappointed with Monday's announcement.
"Kobe gave ministers the opportunity to accelerate the slow progress of G8 climate negotiations, but they failed to send a signal of hope for a breakthrough" at the July summit, said Naoyuki Yamagishi, head of the Climate Change Program at WWF Japan, in a statement.
U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer said strong national commitments to cut gases by industrialized countries were needed to encourage rapidly developing nations such as China and India to curb their own emissions.
"While I think a long-term goal is good, I hope that agreeing to one doesn't consume too much time and detract from what I think should be the primary focus, namely providing clarity on where rich nations intend to be in 2020," he said.
The United States, the top greenhouse gas emitter in the G8 and the only leading industrialized nation that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, argued that midterm goals were too sensitive to be set without lengthy negotiations.
Scott Fulton, deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, called for commitments from heavily polluting emerging economies. He also defended U.S. action on climate change, citing billions of dollars spent on environmental research and other anti-warming steps.
"We've not been sitting on our hands by any means," Fulton said. "We understand and recognize the imperative associated with this issue."
Japan also managed to largely defuse furor over its so-called sectoral approach, which would set sector-specific fuel efficiency goals.
Developing nations feared the method could be used to foist reduction goals on them while allowing energy efficient nations like Japan to avoid emissions cuts. But delegates said they were happy with Japan's explanation, enshrined in the final statement, that sectoral approaches would not be a substitute for national reduction targets for rich countries.