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As People Die, G7 Still Can't Get it Together on Climate Change

06/10/2015 06:09 EDT | Updated 06/10/2016 05:59 EDT
Sean Gallup via Getty Images
GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - JUNE 07: (From L to R) President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker pose at the group photo at the summit of G7 nations at Schloss Elmau on June 7, 2015 near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In the course of the two-day summit G7 leaders are scheduled to discuss global economic and security issues, as well as pressing global health-related issues, including antibiotics-resistant bacteria and Ebola. Several thousand protesters have announced they will seek to march towards Schloss Elmau and at least 17,000 police are on hand to provide security. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

During the hour that it took the world's elite G7 politicians discussing climate change to wander through an enchanting meadow of flowers in Germany's Bavarian Alps earlier this week, 800 people may have died prematurely from the impact of air pollution, most of it caused by the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels.

Wanting to show the world -- particularly voters at home -- that they care about the 7 million people a year dying from various pollution and carbon related causes, the leaders of the world's richest countries, including Canada, signed a joint declaration calling for a global phasing-out of fossil fuels 85 years from now.

It's unlikely that, during their deliberations in the picturesque Schloss Elmau at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, anyone at the summit reflected on the World Health Organization's (WHO) report of a year ago that said in 2012 around 7 million people died -- one in eight of total global deaths -- as a result of air pollution exposure.

Unfortunately, despite positive coverage in mainstream media in several countries, the section of the summit dealing with climate change must be considered an over-blown failure.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was disappointed that G7 members -- largely because of opposition from Canada and Japan -- wouldn't agree to a commitment to a low-carbon economy by 2050. Instead, the G7 agreed to a full-blown, no-carbon economy, but not until 2100.

According to their declaration, the G7 countries say they intend to insist on greenhouse gas reduction at least in the upper 40 to 70 per cent range by 2050.

But, despite the tough talk, no nation-specific targets were set, and the G7 Declaration is not binding.

Canada, living up to its long-held reputation as the world's leading foot dragger on climate issues, balked at Merkel's earlier proposal that G7 countries would eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who rejects scientific information on the threat of global warming, said Canada would reach the G7 targets through developing new technologies, not by reducing living standards.

Meanwhile, the G7 countries -- in a farcical display of public relations -- agreed on a binding 2-degree target for limiting global warming. Again, no time frame was set, but the G7 group will take their declaration with them to Paris in December for the crucial UN Climate Summit.

Had they been more concerned about the hardship people around their world are experiencing -- including people in some of their own countries -- perhaps the G7 leaders would have taken a more realistic, more dynamic approach to tackling the world's most pressing problem.

Environmental groups were divided in their opinions of the summit. Christoph Bals from the NGO Germanwatch said "the summit sends a strong signal for a successful climate agreement at the end of the year in Paris."

But the development organization Oxfam said the outcome was inadequate. "If the G7 really want to implement their decisions, they must take concrete measures - such as promptly initiating a phase-out of harmful coal," said Oxfam climate protection analyst Jan Kowalzig.

"Coal is the biggest single cause of climate change," reads a recent Oxfam report. "Yet the G7 countries are still burning huge amounts, despite efficient, affordable, renewable alternatives being available. G7 coal power stations emit twice as much fossil fuel CO2 as the whole of Africa, and their contribution to global warming will cost Africa alone more than $43 billion per year by the 2080s."

In addition, despite the bravado in Germany, G7 countries have pledged $8-billion (U.S.) per year in subsidies to expand fossil fuel production. This runs totally contrary to their claimed emission commitment positions.  

Despite U.S. President Obama's action-oriented position in Germany, the globe's second largest polluter is not committed to substantive action on climate change. Back home, 70 per cent of Republicans in the Senate and 53 per cent of Republicans in the House deny the existence of human-caused global warming.

In view of such contradictions, holding global warming to 2 degrees appears to be a monumental challenge.

In fact, expectations for a successful outcome in Paris have been waning, and the lack of any concrete action by the G7 further decreases expectations

If the planet is to avoid large increases in global warming, massive actions never before accomplished by humankind will be necessary.

No doubt some progress will be made but, according to the independent Climate Action Tracker , the world's current policies would result in global warming of 3.6 to 4.2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Even the current pledges of the G7 countries, if converted into effective policies, probably would not be enough for the world to stay under the target of keeping warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

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