World Leaders Vow Climate Action but Warn Tough Road Ahead

Both China and Japan pledge to cut carbon emissions

The leaders of China and Japan pledged on Sept. 22 to take stronger action to fight climate change but U.S. President Barack Obama warned that prospects for a global warming deal faced tough political realities.

They spoke at the largest-ever climate summit attended by 100 nations, some 100 days before a high-stakes conference in Copenhagen meant to draft a successor to the landmark Kyoto Protocol.

"Failure to reach broad agreement in Copenhagen would be morally inexcusable, economically short-sighted and politically unwise," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier warned the participants. Ban pointed to worst-case scenarios of UN scientists, who say the world has only 10 years to reverse the course of climate change, which will put at risk entire species and worsen natural disasters.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in what his aides billed as a major statement on the slow-moving negotiations, pledged that the world's largest developing economy would slow down carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

But Hu declined to put a figure and said that cuts in the growth of emissions would be measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), reflecting China's insistence on preserving its solid economic growth.

"We will endeavor to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by a notable margin by 2020 from the 2005 level," Hu said. He insisted that rich nations make quantifiable cuts, arguing that while China has "made great achievements" the manufacturing powerhouse "still lags behind more than 100 countries in terms of per capita GDP."

Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made the summit his first international appearance and pledged dramatically stronger emission cuts by the world's second largest economy. Hatoyama repeated campaign promises to force reductions of 25% by 2020 compared with 1990 -- compared with an 8% goal of the previous conservative government -- and promised to step up aid to developing countries.

With the clock ticking to Copenhagen, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed another summit in November of the leaders of major economies responsible for 80% of carbon emissions. He also called for a special initiative to assist African countries, who insist that they cannot be held responsible for climate change.

"We develop states will have to pay and transfer the necessary technology. You emerging states will have to commit to reducing your emissions without this impeding your growth," the French leader said. "As to poor states they have to be at the very heart of the Copenhagen strategy."

Sarkozy also proposed the creation of a single world environmental organization to "manage the outcome or the consequences of the decisions" that will be taken in Copenhagen, pointing out there are currently 60 different bodies dealing with such issues.

Obama, who has sharply reversed U.S. policy with his determination to fight climate change, took the UN podium for the first time in his nine-month-old presidency to declare that global warming was a top priority. "We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations," Obama said.

But Obama insisted that developing nations also take action to curb carbon emissions blamed for global warming-- and warned that a tough road lay ahead as the world emerges from its worst economic crisis in decades.

"All of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge," Obama said. "Unease is no excuse for inaction. And we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of progress," he said. "Each of us must do what we can when we can to grow our economies without endangering our planet -- and we must all do it together."

Under Obama, the House of Representatives approved the first-ever mandatory national U.S. cuts in carbon emissions. But the measure only squeaked through and still awaits Senate action.

In one impassioned plea to the summit, Mohamed Nasheed, president of the small Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives that fears being submerged by rising water levels, predicted that nations would quickly forget climate change once they leave New York. "Once the rhetoric has settled and the delegates have drifted away, the sympathy fades, the indignation cools and the world carries on as before," Nasheed said."A few months later, we come back and repeat the charade."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

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