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Economy, climate top agenda as PM heads for G8 Add to ...

For world leaders meeting this week in Italy, it's all about the aftershocks, literally and figuratively.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper departs Tuesday for the unlikeliest of international summit venues, the mountainous, earthquake-ravaged city of L'Aquila.

Barely three months after a major quake claimed some 300 lives and left 60,000 people homeless in the Abruzzo region just east of Rome, a converted military barracks in L'Aquila will house the Group of Eight industrialized leaders and a host of other invited nations this week.

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Even without another big seismic jolt in the next 48 hours (there were five small aftershocks Monday, following last Friday's alarming 4.1 magnitude tremor) the summit agenda is as ragged and unstable as the terrain.

Topics range through the global economic crisis and the fallout from April's G20 economic summit in London, climate change negotiations and this December's critical UN summit in Copenhagen, stalled international aid to Africa, the contested Iranian election and international food security.

"Economic issues must be front and centre at the L'Aquila summit and leaders must focus on ways to speed recovery," Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Mr. Harper, said at briefing Monday in Ottawa.

Mr. Soudas had just completed a three-minute pitch on Canada's superior economic position relative to other G8 members and the Conservative government's economic stimulus package - domestically palatable messages the prime minister will no doubt trumpet at this summit.

A major component of the three days of talks will indeed involve a followup to the G20 economic prescriptions agreed to in London in April - and a prelude to the next G20 meeting this autumn in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Soudas said the key "is to make sure that all these issues don't fall off the table."

From the Harper government's perspective, a focus on the economy is much firmer ground than the summit's other big tectonic plate: post-Kyoto climate change negotiations.

The Conservatives are currently working on their third climate change policy in three years. Last week, the World Wildlife Fund ranked Canada last on climate change measures among G8 countries - which include Russia, the United States, Japan, Italy, Great Britain, Germany and France.

Despite the presence in L'Aquila of some 38 national leaders representing more than 75 per cent of global emissions, Mr. Soudas said the G8 summit is not the primary venue for such negotiations.

"Ultimately the context in which a post-2012 climate change agreement will be reached is at a much large scale," he said.

Contrast that to the heady prediction Monday of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

"We believe 2009 is a turning point in terms of regulation, new world governance and the battle against climate change and we will get things moving together," Mr. Sarkozy said after a pre-summit meeting with Brown.

U.S. President Barack Obama, attending his first G8, will lead a special session on climate change that includes non-G8 leaders from China, India, Brazil and other major developing nations.

Mr. Obama arrives in Italy with a new U.S. pledge to agree to a target of global temperatures increasing no more than 2 degrees, a goal the previous American administration strongly opposed.

But three senior Canadian officials, including Mr. Soudas, could not articulate a government position on the 2 degree target at Monday's briefing: "We should wait and see how the discussion goes," said one official.

Climate change is not the only contentious issue in L'Aquila.

The contested and suspect results of Iran's presidential election will also be on the table, with Canada representing one end of the range of international reaction and Russia near the other.

The Prime Minister will be taking the message that "we obviously view the regime there as extremely dangerous, as a serious threat ... that also has a nuclear proliferation program," Mr. Soudas said.

All such worldly discussions, of course, could be overtaken by more earthly concerns.

The Italian government has contingency plans to fly the leaders by helicopter to Rome, about 100 kilometres from L'Aquila, if another major aftershock exceeds 4.1 on the Richter scale.

"There's no risk," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the newspaper Il Giornale. "Even if there was a quake, all the guests would be absolutely safe."

Mr. Harper plans to tour some of the devastated areas Wednesday morning, and he and his family will complete the trip with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Saturday before returning to Ottawa.

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