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China, US pledge concrete action at climate talks

Video by Kate WILLIAMS

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-09-23

China and the United States, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, have been notoriously slow to act on climate change. But delegates hope Tuesday's UN talks will change all that, some 100 days before a high-stakes summit in Copenhagen.

As around 100 world leaders gather at the United Nations for a one-day summit on global warming on Tuesday, hopes are high that stalled negotiations on limiting greenhouse gas emissions will get a jump-start in New York.   

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for global leaders to meet ahead of the UN’s high-stakes Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, where a successor to the landmark Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012, will be inaugurated.

“I hope world leaders will leave the summit ready to give their negotiating teams the green light and specific guidance needed to accelerate progress on the road to Copenhagen,” Ban said in a statement. 

Hope for action in Beijing, Washington

Foot-dragging on the part of China and the United States, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, has been one of the main obstacles to a meaningful agreement on climate change. But delegates are hoping that the UN summit is about to change all that.

Signalling a break with the policies of the previous administration, Obama pledged that the US had “put climate change at the top of our diplomatic agenda”.

“We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations,” he told the assembly. 

Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose country has repeatedly refused to introduce emissions caps, said Beijing would instead peg cuts in carbon dioxide emissions to gross domestic product (GDP).

"We will endeavour to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level," Hu told the summit.

The European Union has already agreed to lower greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Elvire Fabry, a research fellow at Notre Europe, tells FRANCE 24 that the bloc has indicated a willingness to increase this to 30 percent if a deal can be struck in Copenhagen. 

“That means, basically, if the United States and China come on board,” she explains.  

But Fabry says Washington’s history of stalled action on the environment may make Obama's new goals difficult to meet. “The issue with the United States is that, because [it] never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, [it] is lagging behind,” Fabry says. 

For now, she says, it will be difficult for Washington to commit to the types of concrete targets that the EU is asking for. The US is currently looking at cutting emissions by only 4 to 5 percent of 2000 levels.

A rich-poor divide on climate change

Another major sticking point will be finding climate change regulations that both wealthy nations and the developing world can agree on. Developing nations are all too aware that their economic progress could be hampered by environmental restrictions – restrictions aimed at fixing problems that were caused by the richer nations’ unfettered development in past decades. China has been a vocal proponent of this view, arguing that the developing world should not pay for the first world’s past progress.

Anticipating such arguments, Obama told Tuesday’s assembly: “We also cannot allow the old divisions that have characterised the climate debate for so many years to block our progress.”

“Yes, the developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead,” Obama said, going on to enumerate some of the projects now under consideration. “…But those rapidly growing developing nations that will produce nearly all the growth in global carbon emissions in the decades ahead must do their part as well,” he said.

While Hu’s remarks at the UN included new pledges to act on emissions control, he also reiterated the view that the larger burden to take concrete steps falls on the developed world.


"Developed countries should fulfill the task of emission reduction set in the Kyoto Protocol, continue to undertake substantial mid-term quantified emission reduction targets and support developing countries in countering climate change," he said.

Australia is seeking to hammer out a compromise that addresses the developing world’s concerns.

“A one-size-fits-all is not going to get the agreement we need,” climate change minister Penny Wong told Australia’s ABC broadcaster last week. Without some sort of sliding scale, she says, “We simply won’t get the broad participation from major developing economies that the climate needs.”

So how high are the hopes for real action on the environment at the upcoming summits?

Elise Buckle, manager of the energy and climate division of the World Wildlife Fund, says the text currently under debate, which now stands at some 200 pages, will have to be whittled down to 20 that will form the basis of an agreement at Copenhagen. “It’s going to be very challenging,” she says.
Karine Gavand, who runs the climate change campaign for Greenpeace in Paris, tells FRANCE 24 that her group “hopes for a sign of political will on the part of world leaders at the UN summit – followed by a financial commitment [at the G20 summit] in Pittsburgh”.

Date created : 2009-09-22