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Emissions from cars and other sources of pollution were part of the international climate talks held at the G-8 summit in Italy this week. There was a tentative agreement on limiting emissions, but the target date is decades away. The rich industrial nations would not promise to cut back their emissions in the near term. And China, India and others in the developing world would not commit to any specific cuts.
NPR's Richard Harris explains the deadlock.
RICHARD HARRIS: All nations of the world need to act to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, but so far there is much more posturing than action. For example, China argues that the United States and other rich nations put most of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so they need to act first and more aggressively. They demand that we slash our carbon dioxide emissions by a staggering 40 percent in just ten years.
Ms. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (Pew Climate Center, Former Diplomat): Well, it's a, obviously, totally unrealistic position and it is not just the Chinese, it's the developing countries in general.
HARRIS: Eileen Claussen heads the Pew Climate Center, but in an earlier life she was a diplomat. She regards this demand as little more than an over-the-top bargaining tactic.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: I think, honestly, that that doesn't work, and it does create a backlash, because people think that they're just not serious.
HARRIS: But Claussen says actually China is serious about climate change. The government believes it's a real risk. But the country also feels it can't wean itself from cheap fossil fuels just yet.
Ken Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution says China is still struggling to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Mr. KEN LIEBERTHAL (Brookings Institution): They have to build a new city for about 1.25 million people — poor people — roughly every month, and they've been doing that for several years, they're going to have to do it for another 15 to 20 years. So, they figure that there is no way, at this point, that they can credibly commit to actually bring down their total carbon emissions.
HARRIS: That means that any kind of global plan will have to let China, which is the world's leading emitter, emit more and more carbon for decades to come.
The industrialized world, on the other hand, has acknowledged that the world needs to take dramatic action and they've set ambitious long-range goals. But they haven't agreed to near-term action plans. That was frustrating to Philip Radford from Greenpeace USA who was at the talks in Italy.
Mr. PHILIP RADFORD (Executive Director, Greenpeace USA): It's almost like diagnosing your child with cancer but not taking the kid to the doctor. It just doesn't seem like good leadership, and I think people expect better of President Obama and other world leaders.
HARRIS: And action from the developed world doesn't mean just cutting their own emissions. Just as important, rich countries need to spread clean energy technology — and money — around the world.
Jennifer Morgan at a think-tank in Berlin called E3G, says even China needs help with good, old, American know-how.
Ms. JENNIFER MORGAN (E3G): The Chinese want to do things at a very large scale and very fast, and they are building an innovation economy. But their rates of innovation are much lower than ours are.
HARRIS: Independent of the international climate talks, the Obama administration is starting to work with China directly to help push forward clean technologies. But that makes some in Congress nervous — after all, we are helping a major economic competitor.
So, add this all up, and what do you get? A climate that can't tolerate much more carbon dioxide before the world gets dangerously hot; rich countries offering more rhetoric than action; and developing nations that say raising living standards is more important than cutting back on fossil fuels. Ken Lieberthal at Brookings says the net result is not good.
Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I think it's going to be very, very hard to avoid a catastrophe. So, I think anyone who looks very seriously at this issue has to say that the future looks very, very sobering.
HARRIS: And the way things are going right now, it seems highly unlikely that these issues can be resolved by December, which is when the next climate treaty is supposed to be completed.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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