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The forthcoming meeting of heads of the world's industrialised nations must not let self-interest detract from the challenge of global poverty and efforts to soften the impact of globalisation on the developing world.

One year ago, the streets of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom were filled with hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding that poverty be made history. Their target was the leaders of the world's leading eight industrialised nations — known as the G8 — who were about to hold their annual meeting in nearby Gleneagles to discuss common problems and challenges. The protestors' goal: to ensure that tackling global poverty was kept high on the meeting's agenda.

This year's G8 summit takes place next weekend in the Russian city of St Petersburg. There are unlikely to be any mass demonstrations on the same scale as in Edinburgh. Nevertheless it remains essential that global poverty gets the attention it requires and deserves.

The issues on the summit's agenda certainly offer an opportunity to address novel ways in which the world's most powerful nations can — if they chose — mould the globalisation agenda to give the poor a greater share of its benefits. Issues such as energy supply, chronic and infectious diseases, and even the challenges of climate change, each contain within them the potential to achieve exactly that.

The danger is that, however well-meaning political leaders sound, particularly in front of the world's media, the rhetoric is not always matched with reality. All too often bold promises and commitments falter under the pressures of self-interest. And the poor inevitably suffer, partly as a result of their powerlessness.

This is already happening with the latest 'Doha round' of trade negotiations. When negotiations started, members of the World Trade Organization promised that the needs of developing countries would be at their centre — and with them an exploration of ways to modify the world trade rules to meet these needs.

In practice, however, protectionist policies, such as Europe's farm subsidies and the US position on sugar, have made progress virtually impossible. It would be a tragedy if there were to be the same impasse on the range of issues up for discussion at the G8 summit.

Action on climate change

Take, for example, climate change. As a global concern that is likely to affect each of the G8 member states in different ways, as well as one for which each state has a degree of responsibility, it is exactly the type of issue the annual G8 summit should be tackling.

Furthermore, it is widely recognised that developing countries are the least guilty culprits in creating the problem. Also that they are the most likely to suffer from its impacts, whether it hits food production in Africa, threatens low-lying communities from rising sea levels, or increases the severity of tropical storms.

Last year, the UK government, which hosted the Gleneagles summit, made a major effort to ensure that climate change was high on the meeting's agenda. But its success was limited, primarily because of the reluctance of the United States to sign up to any international agreement that would place restrictions on the driving habits of its citizens (see Climate change after Gleneagles).

This year, the prospects for significant action look even dimmer. The issues have not gone away. Indeed diplomats are hoping that, at least in the corridors of the summit meeting, it will be possible to make headway on the biggest outstanding issue currently facing negotiators, namely how to engage emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India in a global strategy for reducing carbon emissions.

The issue therefore remains firmly on the table. We can all expect some fine words in the final communiqué claiming to have made a commitment to do more. Separately, several imaginative ideas for further action are being circulated. An idea from the World Wildlife Fund is to launch a 'Climate and Energy Security Plan', similar in scope to the Marshall Plan that was behind much of the reconstruction of Western Europe after the Second World War.

But Russia, aware of the potentially negative impacts on its energy exports, is rapidly backtracking from its previous enthusiasm for the Kyoto Protocol. There are also signs that Canada is reconsidering its position for similar reasons, and with continued opposition to concerted international action from the United States, the prospects for any meaningful action in St Petersburg look bleak.

Energy security

The situation is similar for energy supplies, even though — in contrast to climate change — it will be high on the agenda at the summit, not least because of the political ramifications of Europe's growing dependency on Russia as a key source of oil and gas.

The need for improved energy security is, like climate change, a problem that the G8 member states have in common. Indeed, many of today's regional conflicts, such as those in the Gulf region, have at their heart disputes over access to energy sources.

Furthermore the needs of developing countries have not been entirely forgotten in this debate. Several proposals — including suggestions about how such nations can be encouraged to make greater use of nuclear energy — will be discussed in St Petersburg. And a meeting of the finance ministers of the G8 countries held last month explicitly emphasised the need "to give a specific pro-poor focus to energy strategies".

The problem, as several non-governmental organisations have pointed out, is that discussions at the summit, as well as any actions that flow from it, are likely to focus on issues surrounding greater energy supply rather than more efficient energy use.

Supply issues are certainly important. But they must not overshadow the fact that unless we find more efficient ways of using our energy resources — particularly non-renewable ones — and convince rich nations to use less of them, energy costs will continue to rise. And this is likely to pose yet another obstacle preventing the world's poorer nations climbing out of the poverty in which they currently find themselves.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net