US President Barack Obama's vow to lead the world in tackling climate change was welcomed by the European Union presidency on Tuesday, Jan. 27, as the EU prepared to unveil its own environmental action plan.
Obama pledges to lead the world in the fight to save the planet
"Europe has gained a strong partner," said Czech Environment Minister Martin Bursik, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency. "Barack Obama is quickly implementing what he has promised. He acts efficiently," he added.
"To protect our climate and our collective security, we must call together a truly global coalition," President Obama said at a White House ceremony, in an apparent swipe at former president George W. Bush's reluctance to take control of international efforts to combat climate change. "We will make it clear to the world that America is ready to lead."
He also vowed his policies would be dictated by the "sound science" behind climate change, rather than "rigid ideology."
Obama has signaled a sharp departure from climate change politics-as-usual in the United States, but this is only the beginning.
The Obama administration on Monday took some initial steps towards reversing the policies of former president George W. Bush, drawing widespread praise from US environmental groups who had felt sidelined for much of the last eight years under Bush.
Obama named Todd Stern as the country's first-ever climate-change envoy to lead international negotiations. He also signed executive orders allowing US states like California to enact tougher vehicle emissions rules -- the first step towards reversing a Bush administration block on such state action.
But Obama's actions mark only the first steps in a long and complicated process, both in the United States and abroad, which environmental groups say will require an ongoing commitment from the new administration in order to make a serious dent in US and global climate policy.
Bold steps must be sustained, say environmentalists
Obama's first moves have been "bolder" than even many environmentalists expected, Reid Detchon, head of the Energy Future Coalition, said in an interview.
But "this is going to require a sustained effort, and more importantly political leadership" from the president himself, Detchon said.
Stern will the point man on climate for the US
Stern will become the country's chief negotiator in international climate talks that have already entered the final phase. Governments have resolved to agree on a comprehensive climate treaty that would impose tough new restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions by the end of this year.
Stern led the US delegation to the Kyoto Protocol talks in 1997, which resulted in the world's first climate treaty. That experience will allow Obama's administration to get up and running immediately, shaving as much as four to six months off the transition process had Obama chosen a less veteran negotiator, said Detchon.
But while former president Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, widespread opposition among lawmakers meant it was never ratified by the US Senate. The talks on a successor to Kyoto also remain in the balance.
US opposition to the Kyoto treaty rested on its failure to include emerging countries in its emissions targets. Developing countries have said that advanced economies, which industrialized earlier, bear greater responsibility for the Earth's warming to this point and should pay a heavier price.
Many of the current sticking points on replacing Kyoto, which expires in 2012, revolve around the same issue.
Obama ready to engage polluters in finding solution
Obama has not backed away from calling on developing countries, such as China and India, to share more of the burden in reducing emissions.
But he hopes to set an example for those countries by enacting sweeping new restrictions on polluting industries at home in the United States.
Obama signed on to help fight climate change
Obama pledged during the presidential campaign to push for a cap- and-trade plan through Congress that would effectively put a price on industries' carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
Supporters express hope that such legislation could be approved by December, when government delegates from around the world meet in Copenhagen to thrash out a global climate deal.
But that could be a tough sell with the US facing a serious recession and US carmakers -- who will bear the brunt of tougher fuel-efficiency standards -- threatened with bankruptcy.
The EU looks set to pile more pressure on the US and other large polluters to sign up to an ambitious strategy to reduce greenhouse gases when ministers meet later this week. The United States is the biggest polluter with 5.8 billion tons, followed by China with 5.1 billion tons of CO2 per year.
With four billion tons of CO2 a year, the EU generates 14 percent of the 27 billion tons that escape into the atmosphere each year.
Last month European leaders approved a climate change action plan that the 27-nation bloc hopes will become a model for international negotiations in Copenhagen in December.
EU ready to put its money where its mouth is
Commission President Barroso will lead the EU's fight
The European Commission will on Wednesday unveil a strategy for gradually ramping up investments aimed at tackling climate change to a target of 175 billion euros ($231 billion) per year by 2020.
The overall EU goal is to prevent a global temperature increase of more than two degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.
To do so it will encourage developed nations to commit to cut their emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
The target for developing nations should be set at 15-30 percent, according to the EU's executive arm, with "significantly increased financial resources" required, including help from richer nations.
Among the sources of finance, the commission recommends making polluters pay for each ton of carbon dioxide that they emit, according to draft proposals.
EU leaders committed last month to a climate-energy package that would decrease the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, make 20 percent energy savings and bring renewable energy sources up to 20 percent of total energy use.