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Originally published July 8, 2009 at 1:13 PM | Page modified July 8, 2009 at 1:39 PM

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Global warming accord spells lifestyle changes

Leaders of the world's biggest - and dirtiest - economies have agreed for the first time to limit the warming of the earth to a relatively safe 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) - an important target in fighting climate change.

Associated Press Writer

Leaders of the world's biggest - and dirtiest - economies have agreed for the first time to limit the warming of the earth to a relatively safe 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) - an important target in fighting climate change.

It sounds simple, but it implies a dramatic shift in the way we generate electricity, fuel our cars and build our homes and skyscrapers.

It means diverting investments in new power stations from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewables - which is a politically tricky task in the United States.

It also means wealthy countries need to raise tens of billions of dollars a year to help poor countries develop in cleaner ways than the industrial world did over the last 150 years.

Because the implications are so sweeping, the United States has until now avoided embracing the 2 degree C goal. On Wednesday it agreed to sign on to the target at the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy.

The temperature increase is measured against the planet's average before the industrial age. In the last few decades, the global average has risen 0.8 degrees C (1.5 F) and is certain to go up a bit more no matter what happens.

U.N. scientists say that to keep temperature increases low enough, the world's emissions of carbon and other heat-trapping gases must peak within 10-15 years and then rapidly drop by 50 percent by mid-century. Anything beyond 2 degrees increases the risk of weather-related disasters, disruptions in agriculture and the spread of diseases, they said in a seminal 2007 report.

The shift in U.S. policy is a signal to developing countries that President Barack Obama intends for the U.S. to play its part in cutting carbon emissions as part of a new U.N. climate accord due to be completed in December in Copenhagen.

But countries like China and India - the next generation of big polluters - believe it doesn't go far enough. They want the industrial countries to commit to reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent over the next decade.

Lacking that mid-term commitment, the developing countries rejected a draft statement calling for halving emissions by 2050 - even though the G-8 agreed in a separate draft document to cut emissions in the industrial countries by 80 percent.

That long-term ambition "is too far off to matter - poor people are being hit today," said Antonio Hill, of the nonprofit Oxfam International.

Nonetheless, the developing countries responded with movement on their own, agreeing in a draft statement to more specific language than they have used in the past to curb the increase of their emissions from their normal growth path.

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If they receive substantial help with funds and technology, they said, they would take actions "whose projected effects on emissions represent a meaningful deviation from business as usual."

Despite these steps forward on both sides, an impasse remains in the negotiations leading to the U.N. conference in Copenhagen between the competing demands of the industrial and developing countries.

The G-8's acceptance of the 2 degree limit is "a sign they have woken up from a long phase of denial. But they have completely failed to outline what immediate action they will take to achieve this goal," the WWF environmental group said in a statement.

"Without a clear path for emission reductions, the 2 degree statement will just join a long list of broken promises," it said.

In fact, accepting the temperature limit amounts to the same as embracing the 50 percent mid-century goal, except it says nothing about how to achieve that goal.

"For many countries, 2 degrees C is a little bit squishier than the world cutting emissions by 50 percent," said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "You have to have a pathway."

The draft statements far may look disappointing, but the summit isn't over yet.

On Thursday Obama will chair a 17-nation meeting that brings together the presidents and prime ministers of the rich nations with leaders of emerging powerhouses like India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa. The absence of China's President Hu Jintao, who left to attend an emergency at home, will make his job more difficult, but Obama could still swing things around.

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Arthur Max has covered climate change issues since 2000.

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