The recent commitments on global warming by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama mark a new beginning for world negotiations to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the head of the U.N.'s climate change body said Wednesday.
Obama "indicated that he wants to show leadership both domestically and internationally," said Yvo de Boer, executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "I feel that that's a very important signal of encouragement for all of the countries in these negotiations," he told The Associated Press.
Obama on Tuesday issued a video message to a climate change conference held in California by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying he would establish annual targets to reduce U.S. carbon emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020, and aim to lower them another 80 percent by 2050.
This marks a striking break from the administration of George W. Bush, which did not curb U.S. emissions and declined to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases.
China also refused to sign, meaning the world's two largest emitters are not included in the treaty, which expires in 2012.
U.N. negotiators have until December 2009 to complete the next global warming treaty. De Boer said Obama's commitment would significantly increase chances of a solid new agreement.
"The lesson of Kyoto is that we clearly need to find a way forward that the United States is willing to commit to," de Boer said in Algiers outside a conference of African environment ministers.
The U.N. climate official said he was "happy" about Obama's "willingness to lead, because that really is what the international community is waiting for."
Still, other countries, including Europe, have expressed support for more ambitious cuts than Obama's target to return to 1990 pollution levels. Most negotiators want to cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere from transportation, industry and power generation by mid-century.
De Boer said these goals could not be realistically met if shorter deadlines are not set before that, which is in part why he applauded the 2020 deadline Obama set for the United States.
Scientists gathered by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that world temperatures could increase by up to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 unless nations reduce their emissions.
U.N. climate change officials say the rise could be limited to 2 degrees Celsius if all countries commit to serious emission cuts, but warn such warming already reaches threatening levels.
At the conference in Algiers, African ministers said they intended to play a larger role in the coming climate negotiations, which will build up to the Dec. 2009 treaty talks in Copenhagen.
The world's poorest continent, Africa contributes very little to global pollution, yet its people are by far those who risk most from climate change, U.N. officials say. Some 250 million Africans face the prospect of severe drought by 2020, U.N. experts say, in large part because of global warming.