Dresden, Germany (AFP) June 5, 2009
President Barack Obama said Friday he was increasingly hopeful that the United States can lead the way on climate change, six months before crunch global talks in Copenhagen.
"I'm actually more optimistic than I was about America being able to take leadership on this issue, joining Europe, which over the last several years has been ahead of us on this issue," Obama said after talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany.
"We are seeing progress in Congress around energy legislation that would set up for the first time in the United States a cap and trade system. That process is moving forward in ways that I think if you had asked political experts two or three months ago would have seemed impossible."
Countries from around the world will meet in the Danish capital Copenhagen in December for a UN conference that aims to produce an ambitious, new climate pact aimed at rolling back global warming.
Talks are currently going on in Bonn, Germany, thrashing out a draft of a negotiating text for the new pact meant to take effect from the end of 2012, spelling out curbs on emissions by 2020 that will be deepened by 2050.
Agreeing a new pact has been slowed by squabbling between rich, developed countries like the United States which want poorer, emerging giants like China and India to join them in making firm commitments to curb carbon emissions.
With the world's largest economy, the United States has historically been the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that are blamed for climate change.
Recently however it has been overtaken by China, although the average American still produces far more emissions than the average Chinese or Indian.
"Ultimately the world is going to need targets that it can meet. It can't be general, vague approaches," Obama said after his talks with Merkel.
"We're going to have to make some tough decisions and take concrete actions if we are going to deal with a potentially cataclysmic disaster."
He added: "Unless the United States and Europe, with our large carbon footprints, per capita carbon footprints, are willing to take some decisive steps, it's going to be very difficult for us to persuade countries that on a per capita basis at least are still much less wealthy, like China or India, to take the steps that they're going to need to take."
"So we are very committed to working together and hopeful that we can arrive in Copenhagen having displayed that commitment in concrete ways."
Last month the US House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a draft climate change bill. The measure must now be taken up by congressional panels before facing a full House vote and being sent to the Senate.
The bill aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. This falls short of a European Union pledge to cut its own carbon pollution by 20 percent by 2020, and deepen this to 30 percent if another rich economy plays ball.
Merkel said: "We very much welcome the very, very hard work that the United States has done in order to see to it that the necessary answers are found for this phenomenon of climate change."
earlier related report
Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was encouraged by his recent discussions in Beijing with senior Chinese officials, business leaders and scientists.
But at a hearing with China and climate change experts, he cautioned: "Our words and our actions will set the tone. Washington and Beijing will inevitably lead by example."
With the world's largest economy, the United States has historically been the biggest emitter of the greenhouse gases that are blamed for climate change. Recently however it has been overtaken by China.
Kerry said that together the two countries were responsible for nearly half the planet's carbon emissions.
"Either we will create the necessary momentum to finally galvanize a global response, or else we risk a global catastrophe," he said.
"My message to the Chinese was simple: America understands that we have an obligation to lead. But you need to understand that, politically speaking, America will not enter into a global treaty without a meaningful commitment from China to be part of the solution," he said.
Kerry was referring to a UN conference on the climate in December in Copenhagen that aims to produce an international agreement to cap and reduce carbon emissions.
The committee's ranking Republican, Senator Dick Lugar, said China's responses to climate change to date have been "complex and contradictory."
"The American domestic debate on the issue will be profoundly influenced by perceptions of China's willingness to set aside doctrinaire positions and agree to verifiable steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions," he warned.
A bill that passed key committee in the House of Representatives in May aims to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels.
"China and other developing countries do not need to take the same actions that developed nations are taking -- but they do need to take significant national actions that they commit to internationally, that they quantify and that are ambitious enough to be broadly consistent with the lessons of science," US climate change envoy Todd Stern said Wednesday before traveling to Beijing.
Kerry said the discussions he had with Chinese officials during a visit to Beijing last week were "enormously encouraging."
"Chinese decision-makers insisted to me repeatedly that China now grasps the urgency of this problem," he said.
"People who a few short years ago weren't even willing to entertain this discussion are now unequivocal: China is eager to embrace low-carbon development pathways and is ready to be a 'positive, constructive' player in negotiations going forward," he said.
Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, told the committee that Washington and Beijing should work to develop a major clean energy partnership.
"Achieving this partnership will provide new momentum for the Copenhagen efforts," he said.
But he said China "won't accept caps at this point as it does not see how it can actually cap emission growth in the face of ongoing urbanization and of the demand."
The Chinese economy relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs, he noted.
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