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International talks stall

ITALY'S earthquake-ravaged town of L'Aquila might seem an appropriate place to show respect to Mother Nature. But world leaders assembled there for last month's G8 meeting once again failed to reach agreement on climate change. With four months to go before the all-important Copenhagen climate summit, Western politicians are struggling to sell the idea of drastic cuts in carbon emissions – either to recession-struck businesses at home or to developing nations jealously protective of their right to industrialise.

A glum US President Barack Obama told assembled reporters that "progress is not going to be easy", as the clock begins to tick for December's UN conference in Denmark's capital, which must set a climate-change programme to replace the Kyoto framework, which expires in 2012. Obama co-chaired the climate meeting of the 17-member Major Economies Forum, including both China and India. And leaders of rich and poor nations were at least able to agree that the world should not heat up by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the danger level accepted by scientists.

But the process came unstuck almost immediately when Hu Jintao, president of China – now the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – flew home early to deal with ethnic unrest in Xinjiang. And there remains no agreement yet on how the 2°C target is to be implemented. No near-term targets were agreed; nor could developing countries accept a proposal from developed nations to aim for a halving of global emissions by 2050.

Under this proposal, most of the reductions would fall to developed countries. Even so, China and India are refusing to accept any specific cap on their future emissions until rich countries agree to pay poor countries the estimated $150bn a year needed to mitigate and adapt to the effects of global warming. A trenchant Shyam Saram, India's negotiator, says that, for now, the only limit India will accept on emissions is the same per-person amount enjoyed by citizens of developed countries.

The lack of agreement has dismayed observers. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said the G8 summit had "missed a unique opportunity". Greenpeace's Anantha Guruswamy predicted that "the blame game will start. The EU and others are blaming India and China, and then there will be a harsh push-back."

Mindful, perhaps, of this possibility, Obama's post-summit remarks were restrained and temperate. "Developed countries like mine have a historic responsibility to take the lead with our much larger carbon footprint per capita," he said. "I know that in the past the US has sometimes failed to meet its responsibilities, so let me make it clear: those days are over."

Now the US is on board, other problems in reaching an international consensus, formerly unnoticed, have come to the surface. As well as recalcitrance from China and India, some of the wealthier countries – especially Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia – have stalled in their green commitments. Yet for success to be achieved at Copenhagen, big countries may have to make further signs of good faith. The EU might unilaterally increase emissions cuts by 2020 from 20% to 30%, and the US also needs to set more ambitious targets for 2020.

Many eyes are now trained on the US Senate, which is set to consider a strong cap-and-trade bill before Copenhagen. If ratified, it would enable the president to demand serious concessions from China and India. However, the process hit an obstacle last month when Democratic leaders abandoned plans to produce a first draft of the bill before the August recess. To get what he wants, Obama may have to use all of his famous charm – in Washington as well as Copenhagen.

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