COPENHAGEN – President Obama arrived in the frigid Danish capital today to shake loose climate negotiations, saying the next several hours were critical in getting a meaningful global deal.
"As the world watches us, the ability to take collective action is in doubt right now and hangs in the balance," he said.
The President made no new promises or pledges, as many countries were hoping, but reiterated the US commitment in reducing greenhouse gases about 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. He also underscored the US position on what has become the most contentious issue of the negotiations: Whether China will submit to international monitoring of its voluntary emissions-reduction goal.
Obama said that any agreement would be "empty words on a page" and a "hollow victory" unless countries knew whether each other was meeting emission goals. But he offered a hint of movement.
"These measures need not be intrusive or infringe upon sovereignty," Obama said. Yesterday, the Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, He Yafei, said he was against monitoring for those very reasons. China says the foundation language of the Copenhagen negotiations does not require developing countries to submit to binding emissions targets that are regulated by the international community.
In a speech prior to Obama's, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said his country, at great effort, had committed to reducing carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of production -- 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
"We will honor our word with real action," Wen said. He said China was doing it "with a sense of responsibility" to Chinese residents "and all mankind."
Instead of giving an immediate speech after arriving, Obama met behind closed doors with heads of state to find common ground. Participating in the talks were leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Germany, the European Union, Japan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Spain, South Korea, Norway, and Columbia.
China was represented in the session by He Yafei. The absence of the Chinese premier was viewed as a snub, although Wen Jiabao later met with Obama.
The president's efforts will prove critical in getting a deal. As of about 7:45 a.m., negotiators had winnowed down language into an eight-to-nine page summary that world leaders could sign off on, according to a US Congressional official with knowledge of the negotiations here. But in a morning US State Department briefing, negotiators were downcast at the weak language in the document. By 11:15, as world leaders waited for Obama to begin speaking, the official reported even more pessimism as discussions leaned in the direction of a shorter and likely even more vague document.
"It's like getting an executive summary without the report behind it," the official said.
The agreement is expected to make broad statements about keeping the world's temperatures from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as well as incorporate movement in recent days on some issues, such as a $100 billion a year fund the United States said it would help create to aid developing nations deal with the consequences of global warming and switch to greener technologies.
The Congressional official said the agreement could still provide political momentum to get a robust treaty in the next year. The text is now being examined by negotiators.
Going into the talks, it was known a binding treaty was unlikely: The United States has not passed domestic legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which other countries want to see before they commit to stringent reductions. While expectations of a binding climate treaty were dashed months ago, no one anticipated the difficulty or divisions here that have made getting a political agreement to move forward so challenging.