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At U.N. Summit, China Pledges to Lead Effort to Curb Climate Change

September 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the U.N. kicked off a summit on climate change in New York, China promised to lead the way in combating global warming. Margaret Warner reports.
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JIM LEHRER: China moved today to take a lead role in combating climate change. The head of the communist government spelled out the effort as the United Nations opened a climate summit in New York City.

Margaret Warner has our lead story report.

MARGARET WARNER: The presidents of the world’s two largest greenhouse gas-emitting nations, China and the U.S., were center stage today, as the U.N. sought to jump-start the stalled climate talks.

President Obama and China’s Hu Jintao joined more than 100 world leaders, who met at the urging of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He warned of the consequences if negotiators fail to reach a new global pact this December in Denmark.

BAN KI-MOON, secretary general, United Nationsl: Failure to reach broad agreement in Copenhagen would be morally inexcusable, economically short sighted, and politically unwise. We cannot go down this road.

MARGARET WARNER: With the stage set, President Obama then addressed the gathering. He outlined the steps his administration’s taken to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and boost investment in renewable energy, and he noted the House had passed a climate change bill in June.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

MARGARET WARNER: The president still faces an uphill push to get a climate change bill through the Senate before the Copenhagen summit, however, and he acknowledged the difficulty.

BARACK OBAMA: All of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge. But I’m here today to say that difficulty is no excuse for complacency, unease is no excuse for inaction, and we must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of progress.

With conditions, China signs on

Hu Jintao
President of China
It is imperative to give full consideration to the development stage and basic needs of developing countries while we address climate change.

MARGARET WARNER: But it was Chinese President Hu whose speech made the headlines. His country has, in the past, kept its distance from the global efforts to cut emissions.

But today, Hu sketched out a new approach. He pledged China would: plant millions of acres of forest, enough to cover an area the size of Norway; boost renewable energy sources to supply 15 percent of China's consumption within a decade; and cut emissions by "a notable margin" from 2005 levels, as measured against China's GDP, by the year 2020.

Still, Hu said, China would not sacrifice economic growth by agreeing to binding international targets. And he repeated China's longstanding argument that advanced nations have an obligation to developing countries.

HU JINTAO, president, China: We should and can only advance our efforts to tackle climate change in the course of development and meet this challenge through common development. It is imperative to give full consideration to the development stage and basic needs of developing countries while we address climate change.

BARACK OBAMA: Together, China and the U.S. generate some 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Some Europeans are impatient at the U.S.'s failure to put its own proposed targets, in the form of legislation, on the table.

Ed Miliband is the British secretary for energy and climate and his country's chief negotiator in the run-up to Copenhagen.

ED MILIBAND: We need the U.S. to go as fast as it possibly can. And I know you have other things on your mind here, including health care, but there is a big international imperative about this. The world set a deadline of December some time ago. The world said we need a proper agreement.

Future generations, if we don't seize this opportunity, I think will say to us, "You had the chance to act and you didn't," so we do need the U.S. to come on board as quickly as it can.

Obama calls for common sense

President Barack Obama
It is time to move forward. It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals.

MARGARET WARNER: Outside the U.N., President Obama also turned his attention to another stalled negotiation process, in the Middle East. He met today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to urge them to resume formal peace talks soon.

BARACK OBAMA: Simply put, it is past time to talk about starting negotiations. It is time to move forward. It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that's necessary to achieve our goals.

MARGARET WARNER: Tonight, the president will be among 18 world leaders who will be guests of Ban Ki-moon to discuss climate change over dinner.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret talked to Ray Suarez moments ago from the U.N.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret, hi. Did President Hu Jintao's announcement today in New York take China to a new level of commitment? And did it make people sit up in their chairs?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it did do that, Ray. The U.S. and Europeans both think that this is a big deal. As you know, China's attitude and India's attitude has always been, up until now, "You wealthy nations created this problem; you all solve it while we grow."

And today, President Hu said, we still are going to grow, but we think we can do that and still set some targets for ourselves for 2020.

Now, the Chinese target is different from the one the Europeans and Americans are expected to embrace, because it's measured as a ratio to GDP. What that really means is that, as China continues to grow, its emissions may grow, but measured against the trend line of how fast they would grow if they did nothing about emissions is a dramatic change.

So both the U.S. and Europeans say they still want to see the numbers. What does President Hu mean by a "notable margin"? But they do note that, unlike in their countries, when the president of China makes a commitment, given that country's top-down one-party system, that means the country's committed. He doesn't have to go back to some pesky Congress to persuade.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, speaking of that, as we saw in your report, President Obama also spoke about greenhouse gases today. Was he speaking to an audience that's a little bit more skeptical about America's commitment to reducing its emissions?

Europe skeptical over U.S. role

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
They all remember Kyoto in 1997. Vice President Gore, remember, flew there, and he actually broke the law, Jim, and helped get the Kyoto deal. He endorsed it. The U.S. Senate never ratified it, even when Bill Clinton was president.

MARGARET WARNER: I think you just put your finger on it, Ray. All this to-ing and fro-ing from the Europeans about why Congress and the Senate hasn't passed legislation and have it signed from the U.S. side, saying what it's ready to do, reflects just that skepticism.

They all remember Kyoto in 1997. Vice President Gore, remember, flew there, and he actually broke the law, Jim, and helped get the Kyoto deal. He endorsed it. The U.S. Senate never ratified it, even when Bill Clinton was president, and then President Bush walked away from it altogether.

And so whether it's that difference of opinion with the Europeans or a difference of opinion over who's going to step up and commit more money to help the poorer countries adjust and adapt, the underlying feeling among many delegates in this hall is, we know President Obama has a different level of commitment to this goal, but we are not sure that the U.S. political system will actually deliver.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, between them, China and the United States account for about 40 percent of the world's emissions. But what about the other big polluters that are there in New York this week, Russia, Japan, Western Europe? Are the big industrial countries any closer to an agreement this week?

MARGARET WARNER: It is too early to say. This is the end of the day. But as you know, Ray, this meeting was regarded as the last chance to kick-start the Copenhagen talks and get a deal, because negotiators have been going around and around in circles. There's a 200-page draft of a bill, and we're told there's something like a thousand bracketed areas, areas of disagreement.

So the hope was that the leaders would make a commitment, each of them would step up and say, "OK, we're ready to do this. Let's stop blaming the other side." This is what President Obama's message was today.

But, despite this climate change summit, they didn't really have a chance to engage. Most of them had so many other meetings that -- for instance, President Obama only stayed 40 minutes. The real serious talk was taking place -- well, just finished -- a meeting between President Obama and President Hu privately. Then they do have this dinner, as I mentioned in the taped piece, at Ban Ki-moon's tonight and then at the G-20.

Middle East talks cordial but frank

Margaret Warner
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
No progress reported, certainly from today's meeting. It was described as cordial, but frank, diplo-speak for, of course, no-holds-barred.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama was also involved in Middle East diplomacy today. Any progress reported from the three parties after that meeting?

MARGARET WARNER: No. No, no progress reported, certainly from today's meeting. It was described as cordial, but frank, diplo-speak for, of course, no-holds-barred.

You know, the U.S. had expected and hoped that at least President Obama at this meeting would be able to announce that they were going to resume peace talks. I mean, that wouldn't solve anything. That would say that they're ready to talk again. And, in fact, my understanding is that actually the U.S. encouraged those expectations in hopes that it would give the two parties a sense of deadline.

When George Mitchell left the region on Friday night, they had no deal. And I'm told he's the one who said to President Obama, You know what? You should have a meeting anyway, because, again, negotiators going around and around in circles. We've got to do something to change the dynamic. And if you get them together in your first meeting with them ever as a duo, it may do that.

So, you know, the problem is that both these leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, have these domestic political constituencies they have to deal with. Netanyahu has got a coalition that he thinks could come apart if he took riskier, bold steps. And President Abbas also has got elections to think about early next year.

So President Obama's aides say he's not discouraged by this, but certainly the difficulty to even get the two of them to agree to resume talks does show just how intractable these two parties have become.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner from outside the United Nations, thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Ray.