Obama at Copenhagen: “The Time for Talk Is Over”

Saying that “the time for talk is over,” President Obama called on the 193 nations at the Copenhagen climate summit to put aside divisions and agree on a treaty to tackle the threat of global warming. “We are running short of time, and at this point the question is whether we will move forward together or split apart. Whether we prefer posturing to action. We can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years. And we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year — all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible… We are ready to get this done today, but there has to be movement on all sides.”

Clearly frustrated by the lack of action as the 12-day conference drew to a close, Obama said a successful accord must contain three elements: a commitment from all major economies to make significant emissions reductions, the creation of a mechanism to verify that nations adhere to those commitments, and the establishment of a fund to help countries most vulnerable to climate change. Read the text of Obama’s speech and watch the video.

Shortly before he delivered his eight-minute address, Obama met with leaders from 17 countries to see if they could advance the slow pace of the talks and outline an agreement that could be signed by the end of Friday. China, which has opposed independent verification of its emissions, was notably absent from the meeting. The meeting took place after an all-night session in which negotiators hammered out a draft text, which included a monitoring system to verify that those cuts are made. But the verification system was not as stringent as U.S. officials had wanted. The draft also treaty set a goal of trying to hold global temperature increases “below 2 degrees Celsius,” did not mention a deadline for continuing negotiations next year, and did not mention the establishment of a mechanism that would enable industrialized nations to pay developing countries not to cut down their tropical forests.

After his speech, Obama met privately for 55 minutes with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. After the meeting, Wen did not commit to a system to monitor China’s emissions, but vowed to create transparent methods of verification. He also said that even if no accord was signed in Copenhagen, China would stand by its pledge to to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy — as measured by emissions of CO2 per unit of gross domestic product — by up to 50 percent. Saying that such a reduction would require “tremendous efforts,” Wen added, “We have not attached any condition to the target or linked it to the target of any other country. We are fully committed to meeting or even exceeding the target.”

Earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said China’s refusal to allow outside monitoring of its emissions was a major stumbling block in overnight talks. “The discussions lasted all night without interruption,” Sarkozy told reporters. “The good news is that they’re continuing. The bad news is they haven’t reached a conclusion. There’s a lot of tension, but things are moving a bit… What’s blocking things? A country like China which has trouble accepting the idea of a monitoring body.”

As the talks wound down, negotiators were hopeful that they could at least reach agreement on a fund to help poor nations deal with global warming and could establish a tropical forest protection mechanism. Most expected that an agreement on the crucial issue of emissions reductions — including a pledge of steeper emissions cuts from the U.S., as well commitment from major developing nations such as China to make greater cuts — would be put off until late next year.

In his speech, Obama did not commit the U.S. to more aggressive emissions reductions. The U.S. has been sharply criticized for its proposed cuts, which reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. But that reduction amounts to only a 4 percent reduction below 1990 levels, while the European Union has offered a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020.

Although acknowledging that the draft text — which would allow the U.S. to measure its emissions reductions by the more lenient 2005 standard — was imperfect, Obama told delegates, “It adds up to a significant accord — one that takes us farther than we have ever gone before as an international community… Here is the bottom line: We can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, and continue to refine it and build upon its foundation. We can do that, and everyone who is in this room will be a part of an historic endeavor — one that makes life better for our children and grandchildren.”

[photo credit: chaouki]

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