updated 2/16/2007 7:02:03 PM ET 2007-02-17T00:02:03

The world faces a global warming disaster if the United States and China do not take decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a leading economist said at the U.N. Friday.

Jeffrey Sachs, speaking with British economist Sir Nicholas Stern at a forum on climate change, said the commitment of the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to make more serious efforts to cut carbon dioxide emission is "absolutely fundamental" to forging a comprehensive agreement on global warming.

"It's a mistake to let either China or the U.S. think they are doing a lot," said Sachs, head of the U.N. Millennium Project. "We have to look at the numbers all the time, not just the direction, not the sentiment, not the announcements. We have to look at the numbers because that's all that counts in the end."

Stern said, however, that both the U.S. and China are doing more to cut carbon dioxide emissions than the other believes.

He said many U.S. states and cities have set target reductions for themselves, and China has imposed heavy taxes on things like sport utility vehicles and energy-intensive industries.

Stern authored a 700-page report last year that said unabated climate change would eventually cost the equivalent of between 5 percent and 20 percent of global gross domestic product each year. The report challenges the U.S. government's wait-and-see policies.

Bush strategy
The United States is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed by scientists for global warming, but President Bush has kept the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it would harm the U.S. economy.

Under the Kyoto pact, 35 other industrial nations have agreed to cut their global-warming gas emissions by 5 percent on average below 1990 levels by 2012.

The Bush administration has said it is committed, instead, to advancing and investing in new technologies to combat global warming. It has set a goal of reducing "greenhouse gas intensity," which measures the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output, by 18 percent by 2012.

"Our voluntary programs are working. In 2005, our voluntary partnerships prevented over 85 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions," said Jessica Emond, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency.

China announced this month it will spend more to research global warming, but said it lacks the money and technology to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On Monday, the country's environmental watchdog said it had failed to reach any of its pollution control goals for 2006.

Sachs said the two countries need to take more forceful action quickly, especially in light of a key meeting of environmental ministers scheduled for December in Bali to begin talks on what action the world must take after the Kyodo protocol expires in 2012.

Presidential campaign issue?
He said he expects global warming will be a key issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. "I see it as impossible in our current political environment for a candidate not to have a clear and strong position on limiting greenhouse gases in the U.S.," he said.

Democrats, who regained control of the U.S. Congress in the November mid-term elections, have already taken steps to address the issue.

The leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced plans last month to create a special committee to hold hearings and recommend legislation on global warming. There have also been a range of climate bills introduced in the Senate.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has offered the most aggressive proposal, calling for reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by mid-century. Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, both presidential contenders, are sponsoring another bill that would cut emissions by two-thirds by 2050.

Stern's report said that at current trends, average global temperatures will rise by 3.6 degrees to 5.4 degrees Celsius within the next 50 years or so, and the planet will experience several degrees more of warming if emissions continue to grow.

He said the world must shift to a "low-carbon global economy" through measures including the development of new technologies, taxation, carbon trading and increased aid for developing countries. He said acting now to cut emissions would cost about 1 percent of global GDP each year.

Sachs questioned whether it was feasible to make such a massive transition in the next 50 years.

He said the developing world, including China and India, are too reliant on coal for energy production, and the world has not developed a prototype to test new carbon-capturing technology.

"It's painful, rather pitiful, how slow we are to get prototypes up and spend a billion dollars or so to actually build a few of these plants to see if this technology works," Sachs said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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