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Climate summits underwhelming, say leaders

After a banner week of international summits, a great leap forward on climate policy has yet to materialize, and some players are expressing a growing frustration.

US President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao both gave big speeches at a UN meeting in New York on Tuesday, but they didn’t make any bold leadership moves.

Jeff Tollefson has a briefing in Nature News on what went down:

Everybody is looking for signs of progress from the two biggest emitters, who together account [for] roughly 40% of emissions, but neither president offered the kind of commitments needed to re-energize the talks. Obama was in the unenviable position of needing to make bold promises before the US Congress has weighed in on the issue. Nonetheless, he declined to acknowledge, let alone address head on, the challenges he is facing on the domestic front.

For his part, Hu largely underscored existing policies, promising to expand forests, produce 15% of the country’s power using renewable energy and decrease energy intensity per unit of gross domestic product by a “notable margin” between now and 2020. All of these would substantially reduce Chinese emissions compared with baseline forecasts, and China is beginning to win some praise for its energy policies. Nonetheless, cumulative emissions are expected to continue rising, and Hu made no reference to any specific emissions targets or a date by which the country might try to stabilize its emissions.

As Jeff explains, almost everyone agrees with these statements, but they are old hat. And the clock is ticking. Says campaigner Steve Howard, founder of The Climate Group, in a New York Times story on the summit: “It was really great to have the vision, but with just 70 days left to Copenhagen, it is time to put some substance on the table. The two most important countries on this issue are being guarded in their positions.”

Obama’s speech did impress one observer, at least. Fidel Castro praised him as “brave” for acknowledging that the US has been slow to act on climate change.

Following closely was the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, which started yesterday evening and continues today. With financial policy expected to take up much of the agenda, hopes aren’t high for a climate breakthrough there either.

Reflecting on where things now stand, AFP has a sour quote-fest with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld, both pessimistic about the progress rate. Reifeldt, who is also the current EU head, says, “When it comes to the negotiations, they are in fact slowing down; they are not going in the right direction.”

But even slowdown isn’t necessarily a sign of failure, said Malta’s climate envoy Michael Zammit Cutajar, chair of one of the top UN negotiating groups. Channeling Stephen Hawking, Cutajar says this kind of diplomacy is like the Big Bang in reverse — painfully slow for a long time, “with a big bang at the end”. Jeff’s story has an interesting assessment of four possible ways this all could play out by December.

In the meantime, the next round of negotiations leading up to Copenhagen kicks of in Bangkok on Monday. And another major climate summit is TBA – French President Sarkozy has suggested that industrialized countries meet again soon after the G20.

Anna Barnett


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