L’AQUILA, Italy | Eight of the world’s top economies, including the United States, pledged Wednesday to slash greenhouse gas emissions but have failed to win the same agreement from a broader group of top polluting nations.
On Iran, the story was similar: Members of the Group of Eight, or G-8, agreed they are getting impatient with Iran’s failure to publicly halt its nuclear weapons program, but the nations stopped short of action, instead saying they will take stock of the situation in September.
The G-8 did condemn North Korea’s belligerence, decried the post-election violence in Iran and blasted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust.
“It’s reflective of impatience with Iran. It does say that Iran needs to fulfill its international responsibilities without further delay,” said Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to President Obama.
Mr. McDonough said all eight nations, including Russia, which sometimes backs Iran in disputes, were on board the statement.
Iran and climate change are dominating the discussions at the G-8 in this Italian city, where nearly 300 people were killed in an earthquake three months ago.
On climate change, Mr. Obama, is being tugged one way by domestic concerns and the other way by European leaders and environmentalists. His biggest challenge here will be not to overpromise or underdeliver on what the United States can do to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The split between the big economies and developing nations could derail sensitive negotiations leading up to a December climate change summit in Copenhagen and, without countries such as China, Brazil and India on board, could prove a stumbling block as the president tries to persuade Congress to enact legislation that would reduce greenhouse gases.
With Mr. Obama’s backing, the United States and the rest of the G-8 set a goal for developed nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and called on the entire world to reduce emissions by half by that same year.
But leaders say they won’t be able to get the same agreement out of a broader meeting of 17 nations in the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate on Thursday.
“Brazil and China, who we will be meeting with tomorrow, must accept a number of common commitments because it would be counterproductive were we to implement considerable reduction strategies in Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan, whereas the 5 billion people living in other parts of the world could continue acting as before,” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters late Wednesday.
Still, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate will agree that global warming shouldn’t be allowed to exceed 2 degrees Celsius, which was seen as a solid step.
“Having these countries commit to this yardstick is important progress. These countries, which account for 80 percent of global emissions, are pretty significant. So effectively, you have the world committing to an upper limit to temperature which is considered by most scientists to be a minimum threshold,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It would have been a major step forward to get these countries to commit collectively to the 50 percent target, but given the politics of this issue at this stage, it isn’t a surprising outcome,” he said.
Mr. Obama has shown signs of push and pull on this issue.
Two weeks ago, the president appeared to be leaning to the international side, telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “there’s going to be more to do,” the same day an energy bill passed the U.S. House.
But with House passage under its belt - a substantial accomplishment for Mr. Obama - the White House appears to be tilting back, saying success will be measured by Congress, not international action.
“I think in many ways success for us is going to be getting something through Congress and to his desk that puts in place a system, a market-based system that lessens the amount of greenhouses gases in the air,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs. “That’s going to be the true measure of things.”
The split between domestic and international concerns dogged Mr. Obama’s predecessors. President Clinton in 1998 signed the Kyoto Protocol committing to specific cuts, but the pact never came to the Senate for a vote because it was certain to be defeated.
President George W. Bush, meanwhile, began talking about the issue late in his term and never proposed a hard-and-fast cap on greenhouse gases. Instead, he pushed for new technology and for action by India, China and other emerging economies to join in any agreement.
Mr. Obama’s attempt to balance the two constituencies may be impossible, said Christopher C. Horner, senior fellow Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of two books on climate change. He said that if Mr. Obama promises too much to foreign leaders, he risks good will in Congress after the “supreme political gamble 219 members of the House just made on his behalf” by voting for Democrats’ bill.
Mr. Horner also said the tug of war is a big change from the Bush years, when the president faced opposition from both sides.
“Europeans and Democrats suddenly find themselves rushing to lecture one another and the press that an administration is limited by what Congress is willing to do. Quite refreshing awareness, on the heels of a decade of ignoring unanimous Senate instruction to Clinton to not agree to Kyoto, because they needed a totem - Kyoto - in their anti-Bush struggle,” he said.
As with most world leader gatherings, protesters used the event to try to draw attention to their complaints.
Wire services reported break-ins at power stations across Italy, while in the U.S., Greenpeace said 11 of its members were arrested after scaling Mount Rushmore and unfurling a banner challenging Mr. Obama to do more to address climate change.
“We’re at a moment in history where President Obama must show real leadership on global warming, not only for Congress and the American people, but for the world. Unfortunately, the steps taken to address the crisis so far have been grossly inadequate,” said Greenpeace USA Deputy Campaigns Director Carroll Muffett. “While President Obama’s speeches on global warming have been inspiring, we’ve seen a growing gap between the president’s words and his actions.”
Obama administration officials cautioned against getting wrapped up in the specific targets, saying the commitments are a good step and arguing there’s room to do more by December.
They also said the agreement on limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, as well as unspecified pledges of assistance to help developing countries adapt, will help.
But aid groups were hoping for more.
“This limit commits the G-8 to follow the science which is good. But 2050 is too far off to matter - poor people are being hit today,” said Antonio Hill, a spokesman for Oxfam, an international aid charity. “We must see emissions cuts of at least 40 percent by 2020 and G-8 money to help the poorest countries cope with climate chaos.”
The G-8 nations are the United States, Russia, Japan, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany. The Major Economies Forum is made up of those nations and Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico and South Africa and the European Union.
The G-8 also agreed to release its first report on how well the member nations are living up to their international aid commitments - apparently a step toward demanding accountability from Italy and France, in particular. Both nations have been criticized by aid groups for shirking their pledges.
Still, the report does not force recalcitrant nations to take specific steps, but rather leaves remediation up to those countries.
“Getting the data out there is the first step,” said Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, who is Mr. Obama’s chief adviser to these meetings.