Problems Old and New Confront Upcoming G8 Summit in Japan

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When leaders of the Group of Eight wealthiest industrial nations meet in Toyako, Japan, this month for the 34th annual G8 summit, the agenda will include some familiar topics. Climate change and energy security are once again expected to get top billing, but some new challenges have also emerged, primarily the soaring cost of food across the globe.

“Water and food issues are critical not only to health, but also to socio-economic development,” said Yasuo Fukuda, Japan’s prime minister and host of the summit, in a video message at the World Economic Forum held in Kuala Lumpur in June.

“It is imperative that issues such as water and food do not become impediments to development,” Fukuda added, noting that he intends to focus on water, health and food issues at the upcoming summit.

Although he acknowledged that the G8 can’t solve the global food crisis, Fukuda said the group can offer a path for the rest of the world to follow.“It is a complicated issue which cannot be solved in the short term,” Fukuda told a group of news agencies in a June interview.“The G8 needs to set the direction by sending a message.”

Oil is another topic certain to dominate the discussions. At the G8 Finance Ministers Meeting in Osaka in mid-June, the participants recognized the skyrocketing price of both food and oil as serious problems for the world economy and vowed to seek ways to mitigate the effects.

“We remain positive about the long-term resilience of our economies, and emerging market economies are still growing strongly,” the ministers said in a joint statement released to the press.“However, the world economy continues to face uncertainty and downside risks persist. Elevated commodity pressure, especially on oil and food, pose a serious challenge to growth worldwide and has serious implications for the most vulnerable and may increase global inflationary pressures.”

In addition to food and oil prices and the global economy in general, other subjects on the G8’s Japan agenda include development in Africa, intellectual property rights and nuclear nonproliferation.

But addressing economic problems has been at the heart of the G8 since its formation more than 30 years ago, when some of the world’s largest industrialized (or richest) nations first began meeting in 1974, following the oil crisis and global recession of 1973.

Back then, the G8 wasn’t actually the G8.The group began as the so-called “Library Group” initiated by the United States and consisting of an informal batch of financial officials from the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Italy, Japan and France. Canada joined the club a year later, and the group became known as the Group of Seven until 1997, when President Bill Clinton invited Russia to the table.

The 34th annual gathering of these eight superpowers is scheduled for July 7 to 9 and will take place in picturesque Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.This year’s summit will mark the first for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda. It will also be the last for President George W. Bush.

Although the G8 tends to generate headlines and often draws hundreds of protestors, some observers think its power is more symbolic than actual, and criticisms abound that the high-ranking policy discussions rarely lead to concrete actions.

Timothy Garton Ash, a British political scientist and syndicated columnist, is among some G8 observers advocating for further expansion of the group to increase its international influence.Ash maintains that a global power summit isn’t complete without China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia (although the G8 has invited representatives from those countries as well as other nonmember nations to this year’s meeting as informal participants).

“The dangers of climate change, nuclear proliferation, disease and poverty — not to mention the fragile state of globalized capitalism — demand a more credible and representative cast at the annual intergovernmental summit,” Ash wrote in a column earlier this year. “No UN general assembly debate or ratification procedure is required. In principle, there is no reason why this decision could not be taken at the next annual summit, this summer in Japan. Like Nike, the G8 can just do it.”

But the topic of enlargement is unlikely to be seriously discussed in Japan this month.The issue that will take up much of the docket will also be one of the thorniest to navigate: climate change.

Carlos Pascual, foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution, recently moderated a Brookings panel on the upcoming G8 summit that discussed the climate change objectives before it. According to some estimates, the G8 countries consume more than half of the world’s energy and produce the same proportion of the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

Pascual pointed out that all countries will need to reckon with their carbon-emitting vehicles and factories to address such a large-scale problem.“We have a loop here that it is inescapable and phenomenally complicated,” Pascual said. “This is an issue that needs all governments to participate. It makes no difference if [the carbon dioxide] comes from Detroit, Newcastle or Beijing.”

But on June 18, Prime Minister Fukuda rebuffed calls to set mid-term targets on cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the upcoming summit. He said that although he agreed with the U.N.-backed conference in Bali last December to reach a post-Kyoto Protocol climate deal by the end of 2009, now was not the time to set those targets.

“Agreeing on a medium-term target is the core challenge for the U.N. negotiations that will take place up to the end of 2009,” Fukuda told reporters from the G8 nations in a group interview. But he added: “The G8 is not a forum to agree on that target.”

That was music to the ears of U.S. representatives, who have opposed setting any definitive commitments at the summit for slashing carbon output, insisting that developing nations like China and India be incorporated into any global climate pact.

That has left the international community grappling with what will happen after the current climate pact, the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012. Nearly 200 countries signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, although the United States never ratified the agreement — a source of intense criticism that the United States, a major greenhouse gas emitter, is shirking its international obligations.

But James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told the Brookings panel that Congress has adopted many new greenhouse gas-emitting controls voluntarily.“We do not need to be dogmatic about the particular approach by which we achieve it,” Connaughton argued.

He also pointed out that the U.S. technology budget, which includes money for alternative, cleaner fuel research, has ballooned from class="import-text">2008July.G8 Summit.txt.7 billion to .3 billion over the past year.

“That is a very steep rise in direct spending on technology,” Connaughton said.“But just as important is the new authority on loan guarantees.

Our Congress has just appropriated .5 billion and that is dedicated specifically to technologies that will avoid, reduce or capture carbon dioxide, and it is on a competitive basis.

“This will allow us to build the new nuclear plants, large-scale renewable plants and the advanced coal plants that will make carbon capture and storage possible,” he added.“This is a huge shift in public-backed financing and in fact we are hoping that other countries will do the same.”

But it’s clear others around the world aren’t convinced that the U.S. government is making an effort in the climate change department, and the divisions between Europe and the United States on the subject will certainly become a difficult balancing act for Japan at the G8 summit.

Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, special advisor to Japan’s cabinet on climate change, told the Brookings forum that U.S. leadership on climate change is “particularly important, almost crucial and indispensable.”

Nishimura said developing countries want to get in on the greenhouse reduction game, but are looking for leadership — and financial assistance — from the world’s richest nations. He said the most important priority is weaning these countries off their coal-fired power plants,“which are the mother of all evils.”

“But no matter what pressure we apply [on poorer countries] … it will take time, and it will take a lot of time,” he cautioned. “In the meantime, things can easily get worse climate-wise.”

But climate woes won’t be on the minds of everyone at the summit, as many African nations try to make sure that the G8 follows through on its promises from past years. In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Graça Machel — wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela and the widow of the late Mozambican president — urged the G8 nations to make good on pledges they made to African countries three years ago at Gleneagles, Scotland, aimed at preventing a catastrophic food crisis on the continent.

“We can’t afford to postpone any longer because the consequences would be loss of life,” Machel warned.

Her assertion is backed up by a new report released in London mid-June titled “Africa’s Development Report: Promises and Prospects.” According to the report — chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — 100 million people are in danger of starving to death worldwide and Africa accounts for 57 percent of the potential casualties. The G8 committed at Gleneagles to double aid to Africa by 2010, but Machel said the actual aid provided since then is “way off the mark.”

“Nobody who is aware and responsible of the situation can afford to postpone the decision to deliver on the Gleneagles promises.We believe we have the moral authority to be the voice of the voiceless,” Machel told the Nation. “G8 made promises to our leaders and the millions of our people. It’s time for us to say,‘You promised!’We are using all the means possible to remind them.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999