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World leaders commit to tackling climate at UN summit

World leaders committed to reaching a significant agreement to curb climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the year, but promised few specifics during the largest-ever summit on global warming.

world Updated: Sep 23, 2009 13:41 IST

World leaders committed to reaching a significant agreement to curb climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the year, but promised few specifics during the largest-ever summit on global warming.

The US and China, the world's two largest polluters, promised to tackle their own emissions and also tasked each other with doing more to halt the rise in global temperatures.

Chinese President Hu Jintao suggested his country could accept a target to slow its growth of emissions by 2020 but gave no specific figure. President Barack Obama spoke of a "new day" and accepted responsibility for curbing US pollution but offered no new policies.

Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made the most significant announcement, pledging to cut Japan's emissions by one quarter by 2020 in a sharp reversal from the previous governing party, which had been in power some five decades.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he believed the summit, which featured more than 100 world leaders, had narrowed differences on reaching a global treaty. But he singled out industrial nations for not going far enough in reducing their own emissions.

Summing up the conference, Ban described "a sense of optimism, urgency and hope that governments are determined to seal the deal in Copenhagen" at the December climate summit. Developing countries had also shown a willingness to contribute to lowering global emissions.

"Finally we are seeing a thaw in some of the frozen conditions that have prevented governments from making progress," Ban said Tuesday.

Most countries accepted the goal of preventing global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius by 2050, Ban said, but the targets for each country to do its part have yet to be worked out.

Industrial nations have set "inadequate" goals for themselves by pledging to cut greenhouse-gas emissions about 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Ban said they must cut emissions by 25-40 per cent by that time to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the European Union presidency, warned that negotiations were "close to a deadlock", yet he said there was no option but to push forward.

The EU has promised to cut its emissions 20 per cent by 2020, but has offered to raise that to 30 per cent if other countries follow suit in Copenhagen.

Smaller island nations again warned that their livelihoods would vanish if the world's major polluters couldn't reach a deal that stopped global temperatures - and sea levels - from rising.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed urged leaders not to repeat the "charade" of promising action but not following through. Yet he issued a downcast condemnation: "We know you are not listening."

Obama, who has made tackling climate change a priority since coming into office, acknowledged that the US was slow to respond to the threat and declared: "This is a new day."

"We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act," Obama said, noting efforts by his government to reduce vehicle emissions and promote renewable energy.

But the Obama administration could be hamstrung at the all-important Copenhagen summit, from December 7-18, as major legislation to curb US emissions has stalled in the Senate, despite his own centre-left party's large majority in the upper chamber.

Obama called on emerging economies such as China and India to make the commitments necessary to lower their own growing emissions.

"We cannot meet this challenge unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse-gas pollution act together. There is no other way," Obama said Tuesday.

President Hu said that China would work to slow the growth of its emissions by a "notable margin" by 2020. He tasked richer nations with helping the poor adapt without destroying their economies.

"China stands ready to join hands with all countries to build an even better future for the generations to come," said Hu, the first Chinese leader in 30 years to join the annual opening of the UN General Assembly. "We should combine our efforts to address climate change with those to promote the growth of developing countries."

The US and Chinese comments in part highlighted the ongoing rift between richer and poorer countries. How much wealthy economies should give developing nations to lower their own emissions has been a key stumbling block to a new global climate treaty.