The world’s two biggest producers of greenhouse gases sought to build momentum Tuesday for stalled efforts to craft a global agreement to limit emissions, with China pledging to make sweeping changes by 2020 and President Obama exhorting world leaders to act to avert catastrophe.
Critics of the two countries, which together produce 40% of the gases that cause global warming, were cheered by the cooperative tone from Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at a United Nations summit in New York. But they said that much more than positive words would be necessary if negotiators are to complete an international accord by a December deadline.
In his first speech during a week of international meetings, Obama made an impassioned pitch to an international community that has grown skeptical of his ability to lead the effort to confront climate change. He acknowledged that the U.S. carries a portion of the blame for global warming, offering a stark assessment of the dangers of climate change and a resounding pledge that the United States would address it.
“We understand the gravity of the climate threat,” Obama said. “We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations.”
But he stopped short of calling for Senate passage of a bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the one action that would most soothe international concerns about Americans’ resolve on the issue.
Though declining to commit to specific reductions, China’s president spoke in more detail about his nation’s plans.
In his speech at the summit, Hu said that by 2020 China would plant 154,000 square miles of forest, which scrubs the air of carbon dioxide. That is an area slightly smaller than California. He set a target of drawing 15% of China’s energy from non-fossil fuels by the same year, and said China would boost its efforts to develop renewable energy technology.
The U.N. conference came at a time of rising concern about progress in the talks leading up to a summit in December in Copenhagen that is intended to cap a new global climate agreement. European officials say the negotiations are nearly at a deadlock. Obama administration officials say they think there still is cause for hope, but also are leaving open the possibility that talks will extend into next year.
In private meetings and public comments throughout the day, Obama tried to make the case for a cooperative effort. He touted steps the U.S. had taken to reduce its carbon “footprint,” including investing economic stimulus money in clean energy projects and raising vehicle emission standards.
But environmental activists found more to praise in China’s approach.
“It’s a very positive sign that they did it on an international stage,” said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They don’t like to put their leader out there and not deliver on it.”
Obama, he added, “didn’t send quite as clear a message as the world was hoping for. . . . It is not clear that the administration will have anything to say in Copenhagen, and it makes people very nervous. How do you move forward when the world’s biggest player is not involved?”
And despite the positive tone, strains that have limited progress in the climate negotiations still were evident.
Hu told the assembly he would measure the cuts in terms of China’s gross domestic product, and didn’t set a firm figure, indications that China is worried about possible effects on its economic growth.
China and India argue that it is unfair to penalize developing countries with specific targets for reducing emissions. Hu called on richer nations such as the United States to “take up their responsibility and provide new, additional, adequate and predictable financial support to developing countries” to help reduce emissions.
But the Obama administration is under intense pressure from Congress members from Rust Belt states to penalize Chinese imports if that country does not limit its emissions.
Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House committee on global warming, said, “There is only one thing China, India and other nations can say that will have a significant impact on the upcoming U.N. climate change talks in Copenhagen, and that is: ‘We will join developed countries in legally binding emission cuts.’ Anything short of that commitment is just window dressing.”
In the wake of the speeches, many environmental groups immediately turned their attention back to Capitol Hill.
Climate commitments from China and other countries “should give President Obama and the Senate the confidence to act before Copenhagen,” Jennifer Morgan, the climate and energy program director of the World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “The world has been hearing, ‘Yes, we can; yes, we must,’ but now needs to hear, ‘Yes, we will.’ ”
Carol Browner, Obama’s point person on climate issues, suggested that it’s better for the president to make the best of his current situation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is in charge of the schedule, she said, not the White House.
The administration is “using laws on the books,” she said, “to make a very important down payment.”
Still, the president laid down a personal marker on the issue of global warming, speaking in starker terms than he has used in months to describe the risk of not acting.
“The security and stability of each nation and all peoples -- our prosperity, our health, our safety -- are in jeopardy,” Obama said. “And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”
He asserted that individual countries can pursue economic prosperity while doing their part to protect the planet.
“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,” Obama said. “We must seize the opportunity to make Copenhagen a significant step forward in the global fight against climate change.”
The poorest nations have more to gain by correcting course, Obama suggested, arguing that they suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change.
“For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet -- famine and drought, disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources,” Obama said.
“Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both.”
Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II in Los Angeles contributed to this report.