Two cheers for the G8

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    World leaders made modest but welcome progress on poverty in Africa and climate change.

    Last week's meeting in Scotland of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations was preceded by the usual game of raising and lowering expectations by pressure groups and the participants, designed to ensure that the summit could afterwards be pronounced a ‘failure’ or a ‘success’. The London bombings of 7 July were timed to undermine the summit, but in fact had the opposite effect. The aftermath of the terrorist attack tempered criticism of the meeting and allowed the G8 leaders to receive credit for at least attempting to tackle the two main items on their host Tony Blair's agenda: Africa and climate change.

    The meeting will not, of course, end African poverty but, on balance, the UKprime minister can be reasonably satisfied with its contribution to that end. No less an authority than Bob Geldof, the Irish rock star who organized a series of concerts and demonstrations to focus public attention on the summit, said afterwards that he gave the meeting “10 out of 10” for its commitment to increased aid for Africa, and “8 out of 10” for its provisions on debt relief. Few development economists would be as generous as Geldof, but the commitments made at the summit did exceed early expectations.

    The G8's recognition that development projects must be African-led is particularly welcome, as is its pledge to tie aid to good governance. In this regard, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which the summit communiqué agreed to refinance, has been leading the way: most of its support goes to countries that show determined and sustained commitment to a project, and to get more money they have to meet agreed milestones.

    The communiqué did not say much directly about the role of science and technology in African development. But scientific staff and infrastructure are needed to make policy and tackle disease, develop agriculture and promote an educated workforce. Africa's leaders have recognized this themselves and, through the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), are developing plans for science on the continent. It is to be hoped that some of the aid money committed during the meeting will be used to support these plans.

    With regard to climate change, the pattern to emerge from the summit is altogether less impressive. Ignoring a plea by the G8 members' scientific academies, the communiqué declined to acknowledge explicitly either the serious threat posed by climate change, or the established facts regarding the central role of fossil-fuel consumption in that threat. It contains some very soft language about the need to “slow and, as the science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gases”.

    “The communiqué declined to acknowledge the serious threat posed by climate change or the central role of fossil-fuel consumption in that threat.”

    It is little wonder that environmental groups, and some scientific institutions such as Britain's Royal Society, have roundly denounced the climate communiqué. But even in this verbose document, optimists can unearth some evidence of progress. All of its signatories, including US President George Bush, acknowledge that fossil fuels “contribute in large part to increases in greenhouse gases associated with the warming of our Earth's surface”. Some people are interpreting this deliberately vague sentence as evidence that Bush is slowly accepting the science of climate change.

    The communiqué also reaffirmed the role of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in responding to climate change. It now falls to the next Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Montreal this autumn to use any political tail wind from the summit to come up with a plan that looks beyond 2012 and will follow on from the Kyoto Protocol. If that plan contains more flexible, market-led approaches towards promoting cleaner energy supplies and industry than did the Kyoto Protocol, and incorporates meaningful participation by developing countries, there is a chance that the United States will eventually rejoin the process.

    By the 2008 G8 meeting in Japan, when the leaders are committed to revisiting the climate-change issue, it is even possible that the United States will be in the throes of a presidential campaign between two main candidates who are each committed to taking the issue seriously.

    In the end, the communiqué from the summit meeting may have contained rather fewer concrete steps than Blair hoped for when he set out the agenda. But at least it succeeded in elevating the public profile of two of the most important questions that face humanity.

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    Two cheers for the G8. Nature 436, 151–152 (2005) doi:10.1038/436151b

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