G8: The Run-up to L’Aquila

Federiga Bindi
Federiga Bindi Former Brookings Expert

July 7, 2009

A distinguishing feature of the Italian G8 presidency has been the intensive preparatory work involved. The idea was to go beyond the immediate and try to take a longer-term view of the various issues under examination in the G8, especially those for which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is competent. That was done by bringing together some of the best minds in the world. Key among the issues discussed were nuclear non-proliferation, Afghanistan (and the surrounding region) and the future of global governance. In these preparations, the ministry worked in close cooperation with the most prestigious think tanks in the world, such as the Brooking Institution – which has been working on the future of global governance for some time – the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

This is a fairly common approach in the Anglo-Saxon countries, one which Minister Frattini also wished to launch in Italy, thus introducing a new perspective in a country that in the past sometimes took a rather Italian-centric approach to global issues.

The collaboration between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Brookings culminated in a seminar in “Chatham House” style. Entitled “The G8 and Beyond: The Economic and Politics of a Global Century”, this took place on 22 June in Villa Madama. The conference was held in partnership with Aspen Italia, the Club de Madrid, ENEL and others. It gathered around the discussion table former Presidents (Ricardo Lagos) and Prime Ministers (Kim Campbell, Giuliano Amato, Romano Prodi); current and prospective Nobel Prize-winners (Edmund Phelps, Jeffrey Sachs, Dominick Salvatore); diplomats, leading academics and journalists; and, of course, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Secretary of State Vincenzo Scotti and the Italian Sherpa, Giampiero Massolo.

The seminar, naturally, did not resist the temptation of suggesting to the G8 how to resolve the economic crisis, most notably by insisting on the need to relaunch Doha and the fact that state intervention in the economy should end as soon as the emergency is over. But the key question to emerge was climate. As we know, at the end of the year the post-Kyoto negotiations will be taking place in Copenhagen. The stakes are very high: the planet has six years to go before the warming process becomes irreversible. And just 1.1 percent of global GDP could save us. A small number, certainly, at a table of experts and former government leaders, but a large number when seated at the dinner table are heads of state. However, the numbers should also be weighed against the importance of the question – and this one is undoubtedly of fundamental importance.

The group in Villa Madama therefore called to give the utmost importance to the question of climate change in the final communiqués both at L’Aquila and at Pittsburgh. In addition, naturally, to acting consistently and coherently in Copenhagen. This question is not just of the utmost importance for the future of the planet but also in enabling us to understand what we can expect in concrete terms from the American President, Barack Obama. The president has strong views on climate and renewable energy issues. One of the issues causing the widest gap between Obama and John McCain during the election campaign was the fact that – while McCain wanted to focus on a return to nuclear power in grand style – Obama maintained that the right strategy was to focus on renewable energy, both for the good of the planet and as a lever of economic recovery.

And, in effect, the nuclear option would appear to be only a partial answer to the demand for increased energy supplies. The creation of hundreds of new nuclear power stations in the near future – there is talk of 150 in China alone – is somewhat problematic. We need only consider the potential uranium supply problem (it is no coincidence that China has made strong inroads into Africa), the question of waste disposal, and the risk of a spillover into military proliferation, as the Iranian question shows most clearly.

Villa Madama therefore suggested that a sort of Marshal Plan be drawn up for renewable energy, with means and resources being pooled to speed up research – for example we need to solve the question of energy storage – and fiscal (and other) incentives being established to encourage energy savings and the use of renewables, from household level upwards. And finally, great emphasis was placed on the potential of projects like the Middle East “Sun Belt”.

From the response at L’Aquila to climate and similar questions we will therefore see what the heads of state really think. As mentioned earlier, the stakes are particularly high where Barack Obama is concerned. The Kyoto Treaty has never been ratified by the United States, and the risk is that Copenhagen could meet the same fate. On 28 June 2009, the U.S. Congress approved the “American Clean Energy and Security Act”. Following similar lines to the European 20-20-20 Directive, the new law envisages that by 2020, 20 percent of energy will come from renewable sources and by the same year CO2 emissions will be reduced by 17 percent (80 percent by 2050). The united front presented by the Democrats and the favorable vote by 6 Republicans give us grounds for hope. However, to ratify international treaties neither Congress nor the president are enough in themselves: 70 out of 100 votes in the Senate are required. And the sad fact is that the numbers just don’t add up (at present, democrat senators are 59 in number). So what will the U.S. president do at L’Aquila? Will he sign up to a commitment in the hope of bringing the Senate round to his way of thinking, or will he try to lower the bar to the lowest denominator so as not to create new frictions after the domestic tensions over Iran?

Climate change also acts as an excellent lead-in to another subject that generated lively debate at Villa Madama: the future of global governance – or rather, the “best” format for it. The delicate balance is always between inclusiveness and representativeness on the one hand and efficiency and effectiveness on the other. The group proposed a “variable geometry” system as the best solution, with the G8 (or G13) as the central core and different formats coming into play depending on the subject on the agenda. Essentially, Villa Madama stated that the thematic approach proposed by the Italian Presidency – “it is the subject on the agenda that should decide the format and not vice-versa” – appears to be the most pragmatic and effective.

But the participants underscored – and here is the link with climate change – that this is not just a question of having a seat at the table. To quote Spider Man, “with great powers come great responsibilities”. The seat at the table for the emerging economies must therefore be backed up by a very real and effective commitment: reducing CO2 emissions is an excellent example. In other words, there is a price to pay to become fully-fledged members of the global governance community and it is first and foremost in the hands of the G5 to decide whether or not they want to pay it.

Last but not least, it is to be hoped that the high-level meetings leading up to the summit return to their original spirit: fairly informal fora where participants could speak freely, throw out innovative ideas, and resolve otherwise difficult political and policy problems. They should not be fora to discuss technical details; nor should they sow a temptation to take the place of the existing international institutions. These certainly need, at least in part, to be reformed – but should not be thrown away with the bath water. In any case, the international organizations could themselves help increase the effectiveness of the G8 and related meetings – as was suggested at Villa Madama – for example by providing a small, permanent secretariat for the summits.

Finally, global issues concern the future of the world, and therefore all citizens. National leaders need to make an effort to construct a domestic agenda that supports the actions to be taken at the global level. This can sometimes be unpopular. But it would certainly help narrow the gap between political leadership and citizenship, a gap that has come to characterize the global scenario. In the long run, therefore, the political gains would certainly be higher than the costs.