Little help from G-8

Supporters of unilateral action on climate change argue that once the United States leads, other nations such as China and India will surely follow. From the perspective of the planet’s health, many would argue, they’d better. China’s carbon emissions now exceed ours. If man-made pollution is responsible for climate change, then little is likely to be improved if the U.S. goes it alone or is joined only by Europe.

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No one knows just what other countries will do if Congress moves to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The G-8 conference in Italy, however, by failing to win over developing nations, has undermined efforts by backers of the climate bill to persuade congressional doubters that the legislation will not merely transfer pollution abroad at great economic cost. This process, in which American greenhouse gas curbs kill production here and allow developing countries without such curbs to pick up the extra business, is the “outsourcing” debate in a new guise.

There was some progress in Italy. The leaders of major industrial nations agreed to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and a larger group of nations that make up the Major Economies Forum (MEF) pledged to keep global temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees.

The failure lay in the G-8 nations’ inability to reach agreement with developing countries on specific emissions reduction targets. Equally significant, the nations did not establish an interim target that would more quickly stimulate the transition away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Carbon can linger in the atmosphere for decades, and some computer models predict that immediate action is needed to avoid catastrophe.

MEF members may just be keeping their cards close to the vest in the months leading up to climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December. India, for one, wants developed nations to pony up more developmental aid. Poorer countries say they haven’t caused the problem, so it’s appropriate for the world’s leading economies to take the first step. Climate bill advocates in Congress say that’s fine. The bill they promote will spur technological developments that other countries will eventually turn to. A climate bill will give the country a leg up in the economy of the future, backers say.

That argument may eventually win the day on Capitol Hill. But had China, India and other nations agreed to firm commitment, it would have been easier to convince Democratic senators like Ohio’s Sherrod Brown or Indiana’s Evan Bayh that the manufacturing jobs in their states would stay where they are and not be exported.