Obama hints at action during climate talks
BEIJING - President Barack Obama, with China's leader at his side, lifted his sights Tuesday for a broad accord at next month's climate conference that he said will lead to immediate action and "rally the world" toward a solution on global warming.
Obama and President Hu Jintao talked of a joint desire to tackle climate change, but failed to publicly address the root problems that could unravel a deal at the 192-nation conference in Copenhagen: how much each country can contribute to curb greenhouse gases and how the world will pay the billions of dollars needed to fight rising temperatures.
Hu said nations would do their part "consistent with our respective capabilities," a reference to the now widely accepted view that developing nations — even energy guzzlers like China, India and Brazil — should be required only to set goals for reining in greenhouse-gas emissions, not accept absolute targets for reducing emissions like the industrialized countries.
Nonetheless, the symbolism of the world's two largest polluters pledging no half-measures in an agreement during the Dec. 7-18 conference took the sting out of the admission by Obama and other leaders over the weekend that Copenhagen would be only a way station rather than the endpoint envisioned two years ago when negotiations for a new climate treaty began.
Obama administration officials acknowledge that the Copenhagen talks are not expected to produce a final legal agreement, putting that off until next year. The administration sought to make clear Tuesday that Obama expects the talks to produce something more than "an agreement to have an agreement" at a future date.
"We need numbers on the table in Copenhagen," said Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, speaking to the top negotiators of 44 nations meeting for informal consultations. He said the agreement should be "concrete and binding on countries committing to reach targets, to undertake actions, and to provide agreed finance."
‘Not a partial accord’
Using language that went further than before, Obama said the aim of the summit "is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect."
He said an all-encompassing agreement "would be an important step forward in the effort to rally the world around a solution to our climate challenge."
Obama did not elaborate. But the United Nations and the European Union have called for a fund of at least $10 billion annually in the next three years to help poor countries draw up plans for moving to low-carbon economies, slow deforestation and take emergency steps against the effects of climate change.
The agreement is meant to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required 37 industrial countries to cut emissions an average 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, but which made no demands on rapidly growing economies like China's.
The Copenhagen agreement would require developing countries to curb their emissions growth, but it was unclear how their plans would be enshrined in the accord and what would happen if their promises were broken.
Delay binding treaty for a year?
White House aides said Sunday that a fully binding legal agreement would be put off until a December 2010 meeting in Mexico City, even though the new agreement must be ratified and in force when the Kyoto pact expires at the end of 2012.
Together, the U.S. and China emit 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, and a new study said the recent growth of emissions during the economic downturn was almost entirely driven by China. Worldwide carbon emissions jumped 2 percent last year, said the study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Geoscience, adding urgency to efforts to rein in pollution that traps the Earth's heat.
In a joint statement, Obama and Hu said Copenhagen should produce an agreement that would "include emission reduction targets of developed countries and nationally appropriate mitigation actions of developing countries."
Obama administration officials are pushing for Copenhagen negotiators to tackle specifics on the major issues such as financing for poor nations, technology cooperation and some commitments among developing nations — though not legally binding — on emission reductions.
That is what Obama was referring to when he said in Beijing that whatever comes out of Copenhagen should have "immediate operational effect," according to administration and congressional officials with knowledge of the administration's preparation for the climate talks.
In Washington, Carol Browner, the White House adviser on energy and climate, said the United States is ready to participate in a commitment by developed countries to help poor countries deal with the impacts of climate change. Browner declined to say how much the United States might contribute, but indicated those details would be worked out in Copenhagen.
U.N. estimates say about $150 billion a year will be needed by 2020.
The summit's Danish hosts and other European leaders understood Obama's comments on his Asian tour as a signal that he will deliver specific pledges of U.S. action on carbon emissions and financing in Copenhagen — even at the risk of moving faster than Congress would let him.
U.S. negotiators have persistently resisted pressure to commit to figures for emissions reductions or financing until Congress completes domestic climate legislation.
The legislative struggle in Congress is now certain to extend into next year. One version, calling for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by mid-century, has passed the House and a similar version recently emerged from a Senate committee, despite solid Republican opposition.
The administration hopes the U.S. position in Copenhagen will be fortified by evidence of some progress in Congress on climate, along other action the White House has taken to promote clean energy and rein in carbon dioxide emissions. In turn, they believe, some additional commitment from developing countries — even in terms of specific goals — could help get a climate bill through Congress, where opponents have repeatedly argued U.S. action alone won't help solve the climate problem.
Loekke Rasmussen said he told Obama and other leaders last week at an Asia-Pacific summit they must come up with hard commitments at Copenhagen, and Obama did not object.
Anders Carlgren, the environment minister of Sweden, said U.S. pledges would likely spur greater promises from developing countries to curtail their emissions growth. Obama could then take those results back to Congress, Carlgren said.
Obama's comments in Asia signaled he is trying to balance domestic concerns with international demands and is in intense conversation with Congress in advance of the summit, said Jake Schmidt, the climate policy director for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
He said it was possible Obama might make a conditional pledge or give a range of emissions targets.
"It's a positive shift in what the administration thinks it can bring to Copenhagen," he said.