In the first international test for his climate-change strategy, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders Tuesday to follow the United States’ lead on the issue, even as a one-day United Nations summit revealed the many obstacles that still stand in the way of wider agreements to reduce heat-trapping pollution.
“The United States has made ambitious investments in clean energy and ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions,” Obama said. “Today I call on all countries to join us, not next year or the year after that, but right now. Because no nation can meet this global threat alone.”
Obama was the headliner at a marathon session of world leaders who promised to spend billions of dollars to take better care of the planet.
But none of the pledges made at Tuesday’s one-day meeting was binding. The summit, part of the annual U.N. General Assembly, was designed to lay the groundwork for a new global treaty to tackle climate change in December 2015. It also revealed the sharp differences that divide countries on matters such as deforestation, carbon pollution and methane leaks from oil and gas production:
— Brazil, home to the Amazon rainforest, said it would not sign a pledge to halt deforestation by 2030.
— The United States decided not to join 73 countries in supporting a price on carbon, which Congress has indicated it would reject.
— And minutes after Obama said “nobody gets a pass,” Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli insisted the world treat developing nations, including China, differently than developed nations, allowing them to release more heat-trapping pollution. China, the No. 1 carbon-polluting nation, has signed a carbon-pricing agreement.
“Today we must set the world on a new course,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said. “Climate change is the defining issue of our age. It is defining our present. Our response will define our future.”
In some ways, the climate summit answered that call.
The European Union said its member nations by 2030 would cut greenhouse gases back to 40 per cent below 1990 levels. The EU also called for using renewable energy for 27 per cent of the bloc’s power needs and increasing energy efficiency by 30 per cent.
The United States will not release its new emissions targets until early next year.
Zhang said from 2005 to 2020 China will reduce its emissions per gross domestic product by 45 per cent. But because economic growth in China has more than tripled since 2005, that means Chinese carbon pollution can continue to soar. Chinese officials said they did not know when they will stop increasing carbon emissions. Still, outside environmentalists hailed the Chinese pledge because it went beyond any of the country’s previous statements.
More than 150 countries set the first-ever deadline to end deforestation by 2030, but the feasibility of that goal was eroded when Brazil said it would not join. Forests are important because they absorb the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. The United States, Canada and the entire European Union signed onto a declaration to halve forest loss by 2020 and eliminate deforestation entirely by 2030.
And world leaders promised to spend a total of at least $5 billion making the world more sustainable. That often includes turning away from coal, oil and gas and from the destruction of the world’s carbon-absorbing forests.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, stressed that changes could be made without harming the economy. Over the next seven years, he said, the European Union would provide $3 billion euros (nearly $3.9 billion) to help developing countries become more sustainable.
“The European Union is on track to meet our targets, and at same time, we have seen our economy grow,” Barroso. “We prove climate protection and a strong economy must go hand in hand.”
France promised $1 billion. Korea pledged $100 million. Others, like Chile, pledged cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
If the forest goal is met, the U.N. says it would be the equivalent of taking every car in the world off the road. A group of companies, countries and nonprofits also pledged to restore more than 1 million square miles of forest worldwide by 2030. Norway promised to spend $350 million to protect forests in Peru and another $100 million in Liberia.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro chastised “polluting powers” for causing an “evil of such planetary dimensions” and then trying to barter their way out of their responsibilities.
Seychelles President James Michel called small island nations like his “victims of this pollution” and said it was up to the countries that burn the most coal, oil and gas to do the most.
“If they don’t do something, the Earth will not survive, and that will be the end of us all,” Michel said in an interview before the start of the summit.
Ban, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and scientist Rajendra K. Pachauri warned that time was short. By 2020, Ban said, the world must reduce greenhouse gases to prevent an escalating level of warming that world leaders five years ago called dangerous. Leaders in 2009 pledged to keep world temperatures from increasing by another 2 degrees Fahrenheit (3.6 degrees Celsius).
Pachauri, who headed a Nobel Prize-winning panel of scientists that studied the issue, and Ban told world leaders the effects of global warming are already here, pointing to a U.N. building that flooded during the devastating Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Pachauri said it will get worse with droughts, storms and food and water shortages. He foresaw even more violent climate-driven conflicts.
And, Pachauri said, “a steady rise in our death toll, especially among the world’s poorest. How on Earth can we leave our children with a world like this?”