PARIS - European climate experts fear the prospects for a landmark treaty designed to roll back the threat of global warming, scheduled to be completed in Copenhagen in December, have faded badly after last week's summits in Italy.
The talks in L'Aquila failed worryingly to end a deadlock over framing a new accord on climate change beyond 2012, leaving a growing likelihood that any deal in the Danish capital will be sketchy and fall far short of what scientists say is needed, they say.
The summits, first gathering the Group of Eight and then the 17 nations which together account for around 80 per cent of global pollution of greenhouse gases, picked up lavish headlines for declaring they sought to limit warming to 2C above pre-industrial times. The G8, gathering the world's wealthiest economies, set a separate target of halving global emissions by 2050, with industrialised countries curbing their pollution by 80 per cent as part of the scheme.
But, beneath the plaudits, the meetings failed to make any headway on the knottiest issues of all, say the analysts. These include securing pledges by industrialised countries for cutting emissions by the mid-term objective of 2020, and putting a financial package on the table that will help poor countries in the firing line of climate change.
Both are essential for luring China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and other emerging giants into making far-reaching commitments on emissions curbs of their own.
Just over five months are now left before the final round of talks in Copenhagen under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but a month of that will be taken up by the Northern Hemisphere's summer break.
A roster of top meetings will be held from September, including a UN summit in New York and a summit of Group of 20 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and there will also be three UNFCCC negotiation rounds among senior officials. Even so, that leaves just four months in real terms for wrapping up a 192-nation deal that will be even more complex and contested than the Kyoto Protocol - a treaty that was born in skeletal form in 1997 but took effect in 2005, after years of wrangling to agree on its rulebook.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon took the unusual step of criticising the G8 outcomes as "not sufficient". "Leaders had a unique opportunity that may not come again," he said.
European leaders who championed the climate cause during the eight wilderness years of President George W. Bush said the 2C goal was inspiring but also cautioned that it was still a mountain waiting to be climbed. Sweden, which is European Union president, Denmark, which will stage the Copenhagen talks, and Germany, the EU paymaster which will have to underwrite any financial deal, all cautiously stressed the amount of work that lies ahead in the coming months.
Activists said the L'Aquila pledges were windy. "A vague declaration on distant targets is no substitute for the urgently-needed action. Ill-defined, non-binding emissions reduction goals set 41 years into the future simply fall short of what is needed at this stage," said Rebecca Harms, a leader of the Greens block of legislators in the European Parliament.
"The declaration shows none of the urgency, ambition or action needed to get us on track," said Angela Wauye of British NGO ActionAid.
No sooner was the ink dry on the G8 proposals for 2050 than Russia, a member of the group, said it would be unable to attain the target for rich nations.
The outcome at Copenhagen is being watched around the world, but especially in Europe, which sees climate change as its claim to political leadership - and also stumped up for much of the bill. The 27-nation bloc has unilaterally vowed to reduce its carbon footprint by 20 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, a package that has been unpopular at a time of recession, and vowed to deepen these cuts to 30 per cent if other rich nations play ball. There have been no takers. The US, under President Barack Obama, is bulldozing away Bush's climate legacy, but even so, is unlikely to offer more than a reduction of 4 or 5 per cent in its emissions by 2020 - and that's assuming that a climate bill, approved by the House of Representatives, is approved by the Senate. Japan and Canada are staking out positions that are just as weak or even weaker.
Damien Demailly of the World Wildlife Fund said Europe now seemed to be losing its clout on climate, both among industrialised countries and among poor countries too. Rich partners had failed to come up with anything similarly substantial on emissions, and the EU had failed to take the lead on finance, which would coax a deal from the emerging giants.
Ian Ross, an analyst with a think-tank specialising on global warming called Climatico, said it was likely that the poker game would be left until the last minute.
That meant the best could be hoped for in Copenhagen was a strong "political deal" on emissions cuts and finance, "even if the technical aspects take another year to hammer out."
French climate scientist Jean Jouzel lashed the 2C vision set down in L'Aquila as "a purely political undertaking that is worthless" if leaders failed to spell out how they were going to achieve it.
He pointed to the warnings of the UN's climate panel, of which he is a member. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) has said the 2C target will not avert climate damage, but simply skirt its worst damage. Achieving it would require industrialised countries to commit to a fall of 25-40 per cent in their emissions by 2020 over the famous 1990 benchmark, while emerging countries, whose pollution has surged as their economies have grown, have to ensure that global emissions swiftly peak and decline thereafter.
"An enormous amount of progress has to be made if the conference in Copenhagen is going to meet scientific requirements," said Jouzel.
TOP TWO POLLUTERS
* Rapid growth has pushed China into first place as the world's leading source of carbon dioxide emissions.
* From 1998 to 2006, China's annual emissions doubled to more than 6 billion tonnes.
* China, with one-fifth of the world's population, accounts for about 8 per cent of the emissions in the atmosphere.
* The average Chinese accounts for 5 tonnes of emissions per year.
* China is number two in electricity generation.
* China relies on coal, the most carbon-intensive energy source for more than two-thirds of its energy needs, including about 80 per cent of its electricity generation.
* The US, the number two emitter, has spewed the most heat-trapping gases into the air over time.
* From 1998 to 2006, US emissions grew from 5.6 billion tonnes to 5.9 billion tonnes.
* The US, with 5 per cent of the world's population, is responsible for about 30 per cent of the world's cumulative emissions.
* The US consumes more oil and natural gas than any other country and is second only to China in coal consumption. The US is number one in electricity generation.
* The average American accounts for 20 tonnes of emissions per year, compared with 10 for the average European.
* The US has the world's largest coal reserves and uses coal for 22 per cent of its energy needs and 49 per cent of electricity generation.