(CN) – In his first speech to the United Nations, President Barack Obama on Tuesday signaled a turnaround of U.S. climate-change policy by outlining an ambitious agenda, but was outdone by the concrete and significant pledges of European and Japanese leaders. The United States and China both hesitated to make specific promises. “We understand the gravity of the climate threat,” Obama said at the U.N. Climate Change Summit in New York. “We are determined to act.”
Obama acknowledged that the United States has been slow to respond to climate change, often to the frustration of European nations, but signaled a policy turnaround.
“I am proud to say that the United States has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history,” he said.
Obama said the United States is now ready to lead, but his words were undercut by shallow assurances. Obama’s authority is checked by Congress, which has stalled on groundbreaking carbon-cap legislation.
The summit is in preparation for the heavily anticipated United Nations climate-change conference in Denmark, where world leaders plan to finish negotiations on how to tackle the problem. An agreement would take effect in 2012, when part of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, expires.
In the past, the George W. Bush administration rejected mandatory cuts in greenhouse gasses, largely citing the hesitation of China and India.
Commitments from China and the United States are perhaps the most important, as each country spews roughly 20 percent of the world’s emissions, though China has now surpassed the United States as the largest emitter.
But the European Union and Japan have remained the most ambitious toward climate change. Japan, which is responsible for 4 percent of global greenhouse gasses, aims to cut emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. The EU, which emits 14 percent of the world’s emissions, has pledged to make a similar 20 percent reduction, adding that it will cut up to 30 percent if other developed nations join in.
Chinese President Hu Jintao said that China will integrate climate change into its economic planning, that it will “intensify” efforts to increase energy efficiency, and that it will “endeavor” to drop carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product in 2020, but steered clear of giving specific goals.
“The Chinese have moved a lot from a position of not really engaging, to saying we will take actions that will lower greenhouse emissions,” said David Pumphrey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank.
He said China has increased its renewable energy resources and tightened auto fuel efficiency standards, but predicted that the country’s “emissions will continue to go up” as China continues to grow.
When asked whether the big question is China or the United States in the role each will play in tackling climate change, Pumphrey replied, “I think it’s both.”
Pumphrey noted that the president’s ambition is constrained by Congress. “Obama’s going to have to get a sense of how far he can go without getting ahead of the politics of the United States,” he said.
A memorable mistake was made in the late 1990s with the formation of the Kyoto Protocol. The United States agreed to emissions targets not vetted with the Congress and the protocol was never ratified.
But this time, “Obama has a fairly strong congressional consensus that something must be done,” Pumphrey noted, but said the question will be about how to act.
Obama outlined aims to double renewable energy in three years, and has plans to track, for the first time, nation-wide greenhouse gas pollution.
In June, the House passed first-of-its-kind legislation that would regulate carbon emissions, aiming to reduce them by 17 percent in 2020, and by 83 percent in 2050. The bill is now stalled in the Senate, which has been preoccupied with health-care reform.
Obama said of developing countries, “We have a responsibility to provide the financial and technical assistance needed to help these nations adapt to the impacts of climate change and pursue low-carbon development.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a similar point, but added that the EU is prepared to pay $100 billion over the course of a decade to help developing nations deal with climate change.
Obama appeared to put pressure on developing nations, which have historically shown reluctance in cutting carbon emissions.
“Yes, the developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead,” he said. “But those rapidly growing developing nations must do their part as well.”
Many poor nations already suffer from symptoms typical of climate change, such as famine, drought and the internal conflict these produce. As climate change progresses, these symptoms will intensify.
Obama said developing nations cannot favor a growing economy over reductions in carbon emissions, “because their survival depends on both.”
Sarkozy agreed that it’s not an either-or choice. “In Europe, we are demonstrating that we can move from growth marked by high carbon footprints to sustainable growth,” he said. “No one will have to choose between unemployment and the environment.”
“In Europe, we tax polluting enterprises,” Sarkozy continued. “We cannot accept a situation where part of the world protects the planet while others simply don’t care,” implying the economic and climactic disadvantages of allowing polluters to flee to less regulated nations.
Obama ended his speech on an optimistic note: “If we can resolve to work tirelessly in common effort,” he said, “then we will achieve our common purpose: a world that is safer, cleaner and healthier than the one we found and a future that is worthy of our children.”