The US has pledged to make up for lost time in the fight against climate change. At the opening of a conference in Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told diplomats from the world's 16 largest economies that her country was now ready to lead the fight against global climate change.
President Barack Obama "and his entire administration are committed to addressing this issue and we will act," Clinton told delegates from major European countries, China, India, Indonesia and other powers.
"The United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad," she said.
In an apparent reference to criticism of US environmental policy under previous president George W. Bush, Clinton said: "The United States is no longer absent without leave."
The two-day conference is the latest in a series of meetings meant to jump-start climate talks in advance of a December deadline, when the international community meets in Copenhagen to find a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which limits greenhouse gas emissions and expires in 2012.
Bush had opposed the Kyoto Protocol and any other across-the-board limits on greenhouse gas emissions, saying the agreement unfairly exempted quickly growing economies such as China and India and would hurt the US economy.
The talks in Washington this week are not expected to lead to any concrete agreements, but the change of tone from the US has been welcomed by European delegates.
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel hailed the US turnaround, saying he was glad "the Americans are no longer standing aside but are participating actively in negotiations about climate protection."
"The atmosphere in the negotiations is completely different from how it used to be under the previous US administration," he said.
Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo said Clinton's words "erased all doubts" about the willingness of the Obama administration to support the climate fight.
She told reporters that China, too, had shown a more positive approach in the meeting. "Usually the attitude of China was more the attitude of a country asking for something," she said. "This time (there) was...a willingness to give a contribution to the process."
Europe pushing for US carbon reduction targets
Europe, disillusioned with the environmental policy of the previous US administration, has in particular been looking for new US leadership on fighting climate change. European leaders were often exasperated by Washington's failure to commit to climate change targets, especially because Europe has set itself ambitious goals.
EU nations have agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, rising to 30 percent if the rest of the developed world - mainly the United States and Japan - agrees to do so.
While Obama has promised to "be an active partner in the Copenhagen process and beyond," the US emissions reduction pledges have so far stopped short of the EU goals.
On Monday Obama told the US National Academy of Sciences: "Our future on this planet depends on our willingness to address the challenge posed by carbon pollution."
The US House of Representatives recently received a draft bill for clean energy development which aims to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020 and boost reliance on renewable sources of energy.
Should the draft bill face too much opposition or watering down, Obama's administration may still be able to bypass Congress in regulating carbon emissions, by ruling through its Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases threaten US air quality and public health.
That decision must be submitted for public comment for 60 days before being finalized, and would allow the government to regulate industry emissions of six greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, under existing clean air laws without additional congressional approval. However, the White House has said it would prefer to wait for lawmakers to agree on a way forward.
Planned carbon cuts may be insufficient
Although the US targets were unheard of before Obama took over from his predecessor George Bush, they were only given a cautious welcome in Europe because the base year for comparisons is 15 years after that of the EU.
The Europeans hope Washington will be prepared to shoulder more of the burden since the new US goals would represent just a five to six percent reduction using the EU's baseline of 1990, according to EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.
Gabriel has also expressed hope that the US will commit to more ambitious and binding climate targets, adding that large developing nations such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa would only be prepared to make an effort themselves if Washington took the lead.
While the world is waiting for what Washington may pull out of the hat, concerns over the effects of global warming are rising persistently with environmentalists and climate experts warning that even the targets envisaged by the EU may not suffice to effectively combat climate change.
Citing the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN's top climate change official, Yvo de Boer, has warned that rich nations must aim for carbon pollution cuts of up to 40 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.
Although environmentalists and experts have warned that insufficient action will cost the global economy far more dearly than concrete measures now, the debate on how to pay for alleviating the effects of global warming is far from over.
According to EU estimates, 175 billion euros ($232 billion) will have to be spent each year up to 2020 to mitigate those effects, half of it by developing countries. The bloc's environment ministers agreed in March to use revenues from carbon credit auctions to mitigate the effects of climate change.
However, against the backdrop of the economic crisis, EU officials have been reluctant to put forward the 27-member bloc's financial pledge before other big players present their commitments. Environmentalists have likened this approach to the chicken and egg problem, urging all participants to put their cards on the table immediately and not wait for others to do so first.