World leaders vow climate action but warn tough road ahead

The leaders of China and Japan pledged Tuesday to take stronger action to fight climate change, but US President Barack Obama warned prospects for a global warming deal faced tough political realities.

Leaders of some 100 nations huddled at the largest-ever climate summit, as the clock ticks to a high-stakes December 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, pledged the world’s largest developing economy would slow down carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

But Hu did not give a figure and said that cuts in the intensity of its carbon 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 said China would meet the goal by vigorous development or renewable and nuclear energy and a campaign to plant new trees, along with shifting energy to 15 percent non-fossil fuels by 2020.

Developed nations were cautious about Hu’s remarks, hoping they represented a step forward but were waiting for more details.

Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change, said Hu’s announcement “can be good, but it all depends on what the number is” for reductions.

With time running out before Copenhagen, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a new summit in November of the leaders of the top 20 emitters to hammer out a deal.

Obama, who has sharply reversed US 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.

But the US president warned 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 US cuts in carbon emissions. But the measure only squeaked through and still awaits Senate action.

In the most visible step forward by the developed world, 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 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 — compared with an eight-percent goal of the previous conservative government — and promised to step up aid to developing countries.

Former US vice president turned environmental activist Al Gore called Hatoyama’s remarks “terrific.”

Gore predicted China would take further action if Copenhagen negotiations succeed, saying: “I think the glass is very much half full with China.”

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was also upbeat about Japan and China’s remarks but said that rich and developing nations still needed to reach a “grand bargain” under which they both shared responsibilities.

“It’s clear that there is strong support from developed and developing countries to conclude this deal. It’s time to end the blame game,” Rudd told reporters.

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.”

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