Peter Dejong  /  AP
A child is seen next to a melting ice statue of a polar bear in the center of Copenhagen on Sunday, one day before a global summit on climate change begins.
updated 12/6/2009 5:10:25 PM ET 2009-12-06T22:10:25

Delegates converged Sunday for the grand finale of two years of tough, sometimes bitter negotiations on a climate change treaty, as U.N. officials calculated that pledges offered in the last few weeks to reduce greenhouse gases put the world within reach of keeping global warming under control.

Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, said on the eve of the 192-nation conference that despite unprecedented unity and concessions, industrial countries and emerging nations need to dig deeper.

"Time is up," de Boer said. "Over the next two weeks governments have to deliver."

Finance — billions of dollars immediately and hundreds of billions of dollars annually within a decade — was emerging as the key to unblocking an agreement that would bind the global community to a sweeping plan to combat climate change.

Nations also must need to commit to larger emission reductions, de Boer said.

South Africa on Sunday became the latest country to announce an emissions target. It said over the next 10 years it would reduce emissions by 34 percent from "business as usual," the level they would reach under ordinary circumstances. By 2025 that figure would peak at 42 percent, effectively leveling off and thereafter begin to decline.

"This makes South Africa one of the stars of the negotiations," said the environmental group Greenpeace.

President Barack Obama's decision to attend the conclusion of the two-week conference, after phone consultations with other heads of state, was taken as a signal that an agreement was getting closer. He originally planned to make an hourslong stop in the Danish capital this week.

'Unprecedented' event
More than 100 heads of state and government have said they will attend the last day or two, making Copenhagen the largest and most important summit ever held on climate.

"Never in the 17 years of climate negotiations have so many different nations made so many firm pledges together," de Boer said. "It's simply unprecedented."

Some were arriving to the summit on trains splashed with a green stripe to symbolize efforts to reduce the convention's carbon footprint. One train carried 450 U.N. officials, delegates, climate activists and journalists from Brussels and more trains were leaving from other European capitals.

Along with roughly 15,000 delegates and at least 100 world leaders, officials expect many protesters to descend on Copenhagen for the climate conference. Authorities were beefing up security in preparation.

A study released by the U.N. Environment Program Sunday indicated that pledges by industrial countries and major emerging nations fall just short of the reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that scientists have said are needed.

"For those who claim a deal in Copenhagen is impossible, they are simply wrong," said U.N. Environment Program Director Achim Steiner, releasing the report compiled by British economist Lord Nicholas Stern and the Grantham Research Institute.

Slideshow: Boon from Canadian oil sands comes at price

Environmentalists have warned that emissions commitments were dangerously short of what U.N. scientists have said were needed to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 Fahrenheit).

But most of those warnings were based on pledges only from industrial countries. The U.N. report included pledges from China and other rapidly developing countries, which in turn were contingent on rich-country funding to help.

All countries together should emit no more than 44 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2020 to avoid the worst consequences of a warming world, the report said.

Computing the high end of all commitments publicly announced so far, the report said emissions will total some 46 billion tons annually in 2020. Emissions today are about 47 billion tons.

"We are within a few gigatons of having a deal," Steiner said. "The gap has narrowed significantly."

Successor to Kyoto
Negotiations on a new climate treaty began in earnest two years ago with the aim of crafting a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which bound industrial countries to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other Earth-warming gases from 1990 levels, but which made no obligations on countries such as India and China. That omission caused much resentment and the United States rejected Kyoto.

Slideshow: Rising ocean levels threaten Maldives Months of deadlock were broken in the last few weeks when China and India announced voluntary targets for lowering the greenhouse gas component of economic growth. Emissions would continue to climb, but at a lower rate. They said, however, they would not accept legally binding targets that could imply consequences if they fall short.

At the same time, Obama said he would commit to an emissions cut of 17 percent from 2005, even though those cuts have not yet been approved by Congress.

U.S. can show flexibility, even if it cannot raise its emissions offer, said Jonathan Pershing, the senior U.S. delegate at the talks. He said the Obama administration was showing its seriousness through budget allocations and regulatory actions on big polluters.

Pershing defended the U.S. position as a radical change from the former administration under George W. Bush.

A year ago "we had a position that this issue was not essential and not critical," he said, calling the shift staggering. "Think about how long it takes for a major country to fundamentally change its position, and this is a miraculously short period of rapid change," he said.

Delegates from several developing countries, however, were less optimistic, and were concerned that the major powers were cutting a deal behind the scenes that could betray the interests of poorer nations.

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Video: Cautious optimism precedes summit

  1. Closed captioning of: Cautious optimism precedes summit

    >> you.

    >>> to the big summit on climate change that begins tomorrow in denmark . more than 190 nations will be represented, and president obama himself will attend at the end of the 12-day conference. our chief environmental affairs correspondent anne thompson is already in copenhagen and has a he preview. anne.

    >> reporter: good evening, lester from rainy copenhagen where there is cautious optimism that a political agreement can be reached on reducing carbon dioxide emissions . in the last few weeks three of the biggest emitters in the world, the u.s., china and india have all put specific proposals on the table promising to reduce their carbon footprint . the world is gathering if copenhagen , 192 nations coming to the capital of denmark , a leader in cutting the emissions fueling climate change . over the last two decades denmark has slashed the carbon footprint by 13% while greeing the economy by 45%. over the next two weeks, the nations of the world will try to find common ground here on how to reduce global warming and make commitments to change their carbon-burning ways. the u.n.'s climate chief will play a key role in the upcoming talks.

    >> we know that the glaciers are disappearing and that tens of millions of people in india and china rely on those glaciers for drinking water supply. what we have is basically a pretty small window of opportunity to change all of that.

    >> reporter: one of the biggest changes is happening on the greenland ice sheet . it's melting at an ever-faster pace. they say changes in the atmosphere are changing the ice.

    >> this place where we are standing used to be about 45 higher ten years ago.

    >> reporter: the ice is going into the ocean raising sea levels , and that could cause very expensive problems for coastal cities in the u.s. a new report from the world wildlife fund says an increase of two feet in sea level could cause $2.8 trillion of damage in miami, 1.8 million in the new york newark area and $70053 billion in new orleans. in other places the problem is not enough water. arizona is in the 15th year of a drought. conserving water is second nature in flagstaff, a city of 65,000 people.

    >> flagstaff has enough water to get it into the near future , but there are concerns about the supply out to the year 2050 .

    >> reporter: what are the concerns?

    >> to have enough water to supply potential anticipated future growth.

    >> reporter: trying to balance the desire for economic growth around the world with the need to reduce emissions from the coal, gas and oil that helps fuel such growth is the challenge of copenhagen . now, also under discussion here are those stolen e-mails from a british university that have made this scandal called climategate, and specially in those e-mails some climate scientists seem to be suggesting that perhaps they're massaging the data. i spoke to them about that. he said certainly the language in e-mails looks bad. he's glad that both the u.n. and university are investigating those e-mails, but when you look at the overall science and the fact that science from around the world has been reviewed by scientists around the world 2500 by the u.n., he says the evidence is overwhelming that man is behind climate change . lester.

    >> anne thompson in copenhagen tonight, thank you. we'll have a series of special reports called "a perfect storm " all this week here on "nightly news."

    >>> there was violence in the


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