Speaking at a U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson described the EPA's decision that greenhouse gases should be regulated as complementary to U.S. legislation not an effort to supplant the work of Congress.
"This is not an either/or moment. This is a both/and moment," she told more than 100 people who packed a U.S. meeting room in the conference center. Negotiators at the 192-nation U.N. conference are also working to bridge the chasm between rich and poor countries over how to share the burden of fighting climate change.
The EPA on Monday gave President Barack Obama a new way to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions when it determined that scientific evidence clearly shows they are, and that the pollutants mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That means the EPA could regulate those gases without the approval of Congress.
The EPA decision was welcomed by other nations in Copenhagen that have called on the U.S. to boost its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The full Senate has yet to take up legislation that cleared its environment committee and calls for greenhouse gases to be cut by 20 percent by 2020, a target that was scaled back to 17 percent in the House after opposition from coal-state Democrats.
"We need legislation" to remove any uncertainty that businesses might have, Jackson added. "The reason for legislation is to take that question out of their minds. ... We will work closely with our Congress to pass legislation to lower our greenhouse gases more than 80 percent by 2050."
Jackson said the U.S. would take "reasonable efforts" and also "meaningful, common- sense steps" to cut emissions, but didn't provide specifics.
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U.S. business groups have strongly argued against tackling global warming through the Clean Air Act, saying it is less flexible and more costly than the cap-and-trade legislation being considered by Congress. Any regulations from the EPA are certain to spawn lawsuits and a lengthy legal fights.
Getting an agreement that satisfies both rich and poor nations, said Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate envoy. "But I think an agreement is there to be had if we do this right," he added.
Lumumba Di-Aping of Sudan, the head of the 135-nation bloc of developing countries, said the $10 billion a year that has been proposed to help poor nations fight climate change paled in comparison to the more than $1 trillion already spent to rescue financial institutions.
"If this is the greatest risk that humanity faces, then how do you explain $10 billion?" he said. "Ten billion will not buy developing countries' citizens enough coffins."
Small island nations, poor countries and those seeking money from the developed world to preserve their tropical forests were among those upset over competing draft texts attributed to Denmark and China outlining proposed outcomes for the historic summit, which runs through Dec. 18. China has recently overtaken the U.S. as the world's top greenhouse gas emitter.
Some of the poorest nations feared they would bear too much of the burden to curb greenhouse gases. They are seeking billions of dollars in aid from the wealthy countries to deal with climate change, which melts glaciers that raise sea levels worldwide, turns some regions drier and threatens food production.
Diplomats from developing countries and climate activists complained the Danish hosts pre-empted the negotiations with their draft proposal, which would allow rich countries to cut fewer emissions while poorer nations would face tougher limits on greenhouse gases and more conditions on getting funds.
"When a process is flawed, then the outcome is flawed," Raman Mehta, ActionAid's program manager in India, said of the Danish proposal. "If developing countries don't have a concrete indication of the scale of finances, then you don't get a deal and even if you do, it's a bad deal."
It focuses "on pleasing the rich and powerful countries rather than serving the majority of states who are demanding a fair and ambitious solution," said Kim Carstensen of the environmental group WWF.
A sketchy counterproposal attributed to China would extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required 37 industrial nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for global warming by an average 5 percent by 2012, compared with 1990 levels.
The Chinese text would incorporate specific new, deeper targets for the industrialized world for a further five to eight years. However, developing countries including China would be covered by a separate agreement that encourages taking action to control emissions but not in the same legally binding way.
Poorer nations believe the two-track approach would best preserve the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" recognized by the Kyoto treaty.
The U.N.'s weather agency unveiled data Tuesday showing that this decade is on track to become the hottest since records began in 1850, with 2009 the fifth-warmest year ever. The second warmest decade was the 1990s.
Only the United States and Canada experienced cooler conditions than average, the World Meteorological Organization said, though Alaska had the second-warmest July on record.
Also on Wednesday, China strongly protested a blunder that prevented a top diplomat from entering the vast Bella Center where the U.N. conference is being held.
Su Wei, the director general of China's climate change negotiation team, told the meeting he was "extremely unhappy" that a Chinese minister was barred from entry three days in a row.
Su called the incident "unacceptable" and expressed anger that U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer was not informed. De Boer pledged to investigate and "make sure it doesn't happen again."