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Wishing on a star for the G8 summit

Andrew F. Cooper & Ramesh Thakur

Gaining a success on climate change — and doing it with the countries that are vital for both policy implementation and institutional reinvigoration — will do the G8 a world of good.

The seventh day of the seventh month is well known in Japan for the Tanabata or ‘Star’ festival, the annual event that allows the Japanese to write down their wishes on colourful strips of paper and place them in the branches of bamboo trees. This year, the festival coincides with the start of the G8 summit in Toyako on July 7. In light of the beautiful Japanese Tanabata tradition, what should we wish for regarding the outcomes of the G8 summit?

At a minimum level, we should wish for a safely managed event without security breaches or any serious distractions. Granting this wish should be an easy one as no country devotes as much attention and resources to the G8 as Japan. The budget for the Okinawa summit in 2000 was an estimated $750 million, a particularly lavish amount as it came in the middle of a banking crisis. Protocol was handled flawlessly.

The choice of the beautiful lakeside resort in Hokkaido facilitates the image of good management. Its remote site eases issues of security and ‘demonstrations management’ that have come to symbolise G8 summits in visual images. Every minute detail seems to have been looked after. Gestures to mark the occasion range from the issuing of new 1,000 yen coins to the formal recognition of the Ainu people — located mainly in Hokkaido — as indigenous.

Difficulties in meeting expectations appear only if we stretch the wish list from process to substantive achievements. As with most recent G8 summits, the list of topics calling for urgent and concerted global attention is a long one. Many of these items are all too familiar to the G8, whether on security (Iraq, Afghanistan), nuclear non-proliferation (North Korea, Iran) and disarmament (Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States) or with African development (on which India seems to have embarked on a modest competition with Japan and China) and health related issues. But what is striking this year is the manner in which so many other concerns have jumped up so dramatically in demanding consideration, such as the food crisis where rising demand and falling supplies are pushing up prices beyond what many poor people can afford, soaring oil prices, and sovereign wealth funds.

Amidst this scattered agenda, a stubbornly persistent issue remains that of the environment generally and climate change specifically. The logic of Japan putting this item on top of the priority list is unassailable. The Kyoto Protocol remains the most tangible — if utterly unenforceable — global commitment to admittedly soft emissions reduction targets for key groups of countries. Technically, Japan has been hugely innovative in this area. Diplomatically, both the Kobe initiative (launched at the end of May) on cutting outputs of greenhouse gases and the proposal to establish a clean technology fund have come prominently into play.

Although we sincerely wish for substantive progress on emission reductions beyond attractive sounding declarations, our wish is even more ambitious. Our view is that climate change should be privileged not only because of its own intrinsic merits in the policy domain but also because it serves as a catalyst for transforming the institutional architecture of the G8.

The issue of G8 reform has received considerable scrutiny from key policymakers. Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin pushed the notion of a big bang change via a move towards what he called a new Leaders’ 20. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown have talked, albeit less ambitiously, of G8 enlargement to take in one or more of the big emerging powers. At the incremental level, the Heiligendamm process initiated by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at last year’s G8 summit has established a structure for issue-specific dialogue extending through 2009.

In one version of the Tanabata legend, star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi are separated forever by the Milky Way (or Amanogawa River). A similar fate for the major industrial and developing nations assembled at Toyako should be averted. Could the issue of climate change successfully bridge their separate interests and worldviews?

This will depend on the institution’s flexibility. The Heiligendamm process has engaged the Outreach 5 (O5) countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) in an officials’ level outreach dialogue on a number of substantive issues, including innovation, investment, development assistance and energy policy. Extending through till 2009, this process is facilitated at arms-length from the G8 by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development which boasts of technical expertise and fills an important mentorship role. This process is novel on a number of fronts, not the least because it connects this dialogue to the expertise of the OECD.

Pressure for reform

The pressure for reform may bubble up from many sources. Even so, garnering support for reform within the Group will always prove difficult (witnessed in other organisational arrangements, with the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty as just the most recent example or, more familiarly and frustratingly for India as much as for Japan, the decades-long impasse over U.N. Security Council enlargement).

Several solid reasons can be given in favour of the status quo. Yet reforming the G8 via a functional or issue-centric formula breaks through this culture of caution. Reform in this manner clearly and rationally explains why certain countries are brought into the G8 club on a sustained basis. A forum such as the G8 needs like-mindedness (notwithstanding the presence of Russia) and smallness in its core membership. Yet, to be effective, many ‘outsiders’ are welcomed for portions of the summit. On the first day, there will be a large group of African leaders. On the second day, the G8 members will have a day to themselves. And the third day will see a Major Emitters Meeting (MEM 16) combining the Outreach 5 of the Heiligendamm process countries supplemented by the presence of Indonesia, South Korea, and Australia as the MEM 16.

These countries have the capacity to break out of the institutional lethargy in which we find ourselves. Leaving some other candidates out of the process can be objectively justified. Egypt or Turkey, for example, might have some credible claims but neither meets the emissions criteria.

The functional route also eases the impending transition in U.S. politics. Focussing on climate change as the catalyst for G8 reform allows some buy-in from the Bush administration as the MEM-16 notion is borrowed from its Asia-Pacific-6 initiative. It does so however without sacrificing a bridge to the next administration, especially if Senator Barack Obama is elected. One of the few points of agreement between Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama (even if their recipes for addressing the problem diverge sharply) is on the cast of countries that should be around the table negotiating solutions for climate change. If Mr. Bush has his MEM-16, Mr. Obama has his proposal for a Global Energy Forum based on the combination of the G8 and the O5.

Focussing on a functional issue does not come without risks. Above all, negotiations among the G8 leaders should not get caught up in the technicalities of climate change, as these are not within their strengths or even interests. As on other options for catalytic action (energy or health) it is the ministers, bureaucrats and experts who will drive the precise agenda forward.

That said, the G8 is in need of symbolic and tangible successes that revitalise its credibility as both an efficient and a legitimate body. The long communiqué with its inventory of global issues will be treated as mere pieces of paper — with far less meaning than those placed in bamboo branches during the Tanabata festival. The G8 is a club whose membership is in need of modification if its swiftly eroding credibility is to be halted. Gaining a success on climate change — and doing it with the countries that are vital for both policy implementation and institutional reinvigoration — will do the G8 a world of good.

Caution is a virtue, yet it is one that few people will ask for at festival time. Certainly it is the opposite that we wish for at Toyako. Opportunities such as this for bold action among the world’s major leaders do not come too often. Japan has a golden opportunity to move from mere wishful thinking to becoming a star leader through creative and feasible initiatives.

(Andrew F. Cooper and Ramesh Thakur are distinguished fellows at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professors of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Canada.)

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