Posted by: Martin Fox | September 22, 2009

U.S. and China Vow Action on Climate Threat but Cite Needs

An interesting day in the battle against global climate change.

Peace out – Martin Fox with the Center for Global Leadership

obama.190.1U.S. and China Vow Action on Climate Threat but Cite Needs

UNITED NATIONS — Some 100 heads of state gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday for an unprecedented daylong conference on combating climate change, with leaders like Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao of China acknowledging that agreement is an important goal, but also stressing their own needs.

Negotiators have been struggling to hammer out a deal to cut global emissions by December in Copenhagen, and the United Nations organizers are hoping that gathering the leaders will give the talks new political momentum.

Mr. Hu said that while China had made great strides in development, it still lagged relatively in terms of its wealth per individual, and that had to be taken into account in fighting emissions.

“Due to their low development level and shortage of capital and technology, developing countries have limited capability and means to deal with climate change,” he said. “Developing countries need to strike a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection.”

Mr. Hu said his country would take four steps toward greener development, although he did not give any specific numerical targets. He said China would cut carbon dioxide emissions by a “notable margin” by 2020 compared with 2005 levels; drastically increase the size of forests; increase the use of nuclear or nonfossil fuels to 15 percent of power by 2020; and work to develop a green economy.

He did not say whether China would consider the cuts mandatory, and he also tied the emissions cuts to growth in the country’s gross domestic product, meaning the overall level of emissions could go up even if the amount per person was less.

Mr. Obama also repeated his commitment to green growth while acknowledging the domestic battles that many countries will face. The world “cannot allow the old divisions that have characterized the climate debate for so many years to block our progress,” he said, adding that forging any kind of consensus would come slowly. “And so all of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge.”

He noted that the United States and others had tried to play down the crisis before but now recognized its gravity.

China is the largest emitter, followed by the United States, and they account for about 40 percent, split evenly between them. The United States has said that its willingness to accept mandatory emissions requirements is hinged to domestic law, and a new law, stalled by the health care debate, is awaiting Senate action.

Mr. Obama said he was committed to the United States making the largest-ever investment in renewable energy, setting new standards for reducing pollution from vehicles and making clean energy profitable, among other initiatives. He said developed nations must also provide financial and technical assistance to help the rest adapt to the impact of climate change and pursue low-carbon development.

Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, provided the scientific context, and warned that current emissions trajectories were propelling the world toward the panel’s worst-case scenarios.

“Science leaves us no space for inaction now,” he said.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, appealed to the leaders to set aside their national interests and think about the future of the globe.

“Instead of demanding concessions from others, let us ask how we can contribute to the greater good,” he said in remarks to the leaders gathered in the General Assembly hall, describing the talks as moving at “glacial” speed. “The world’s glaciers are now melting faster than human progress to protect them — and us.”

The conference on Tuesday, which is not a negotiating session but designed to push toward a strategy, focused on four outstanding hurdles.

Industrialized nations, while agreeing on cutting emissions in the long term — by 2050 — have failed to agree on a crucial midterm target for carbon emissions cuts by 2020. They have pledged to go roughly halfway toward meeting the ambitious target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 — which environmental advocates say is not enough.

Developing powerhouses like China and India have agreed on the need to trim emissions, but they reject mandatory limits and demand financial and technical support in exchange.

Efforts to reach any kind of consensus around the issue of aid for the poorest countries to adapt to the impact of climate change have been shunted aside. Finally, there has been no agreement on which institutions would verify that targets were being met and supervise the financial and emissions targets.

The main hurdle is coming up with a plan over the next decade that will keep the temperature rise to about 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. Even countries like India, which largely blames the developed world for the problem but has announced a package of cuts, admit that looking ahead to 2050 is not good enough.

“It is the height of dishonesty to have a target for 2050 because none of us will be around to be held accountable,” Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister of India, told a news conference late Monday.

Some blocs of nations have their own targets. The small island states of the Pacific and the Caribbean want to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees because they fear being inundated by the sea rise that climate change could bring. Those states, along with many in Africa, are demanding billions of dollars in aid to assuage the damage they are already suffering.

During the speeches on Tuesday, the change in language coming from the United States was stark. Gone was the Bush administration’s questioning about whether global warming is caused by mankind. Mr. Obama was quick to take responsibility on behalf of said mankind.

“John F. Kennedy once observed that ‘our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man,’” Mr. Obama said. “It is true that for too many years mankind has been slow to respond to or even recognize the magnitude of the climate threat. It is true of my own country as well; we recognize that.”

Mr. Obama struck a note of urgency, saying: “The security and stability of each nation and all peoples — our prosperity, our health, our safety — are in jeopardy. And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”

Various ministers and other officials said that if major powers like China, Brazil, Indonesia all gave conciliatory indications today at the United Nations, that would probably help Mr. Obama overcome domestic opposition.

Japan’s newly elected prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, whose nation generates more than 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, said his nation would seek a 25 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, and said his country was ready to contribute money and technical help for poorer countries to cut emissions.

“I will now seek to unite our efforts to address current and future climate change with due consideration of the role of science,” he said. “I am resolved to exercise the political will require to deliver on this promise.”

Helene Cooper contributed reporting.


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