WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush was to make a rare sortie into the climate-change arena on Friday, making a closely-watched speech at his forum gathering the world's 16 biggest greenhouse-gas polluters.
After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday made the most strongly-worded statement on climate change in his administration's history, Bush was to be scrutinised for any sign that he would follow this rhetoric with policy change.
"I think that we all want to hear (from Bush) a very strong commitment to tackle climate change, not just through voluntary action or vague references... but quantifiable measures, verifiable results," Mexico's delegate to the talks, Fernando Tudela, told journalists.
South African Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk told AFP: "We came here expecting something new, so we're all waiting with bated breath for the speech by President Bush to see if he can fulfill that expectation. That's why we're all here."
Bush was to make a 10-minute speech in the morning session of the two-day meeting -- an initiative he proposed in June while under intensifying pressure to end his six years of isolation from the global task force for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
This carbon pollution, mainly derived from burning fossil fuels, traps solar heat in the atmosphere and is slowly heating Earth's surface, wreaking the first of what could be dramatic changes to the climate system.
On Thursday, Rice spelt out a warning on climate change that was exceptionally blunt for a Bush administration official, called for international cooperation against the threat and pledged US commitment to work under the UN.
"This test has much in common with the other great challenges that are defining this young century -- from weapons proliferation, to the spread of disease, to transnational terrorism," she said.
"These are truly global problems and no one nation, no matter how much power or political will it possesses, can succeed alone. We all need partners, and we all need to work in concert."
Rice's words coaxed a positive response among defenders of the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark UN emissions-cutting accord that was nearly wrecked after it was abandoned in 2001 by Bush.
European diplomats welcomed it as a long-awaited attempt to build a bridge by the world's No. 1 carbon polluter.
But they also remained wary about any US attempt to parlay the Washington initiative into a narrow, unambitious alternative to the UN process, which is slower and cumbersome but more demanding in its curbs.
"Our view is that Bali is the landmark that we must all look at," said Portuguese Deputy Environment Minister Humberto Rosa, whose country is current president of the European Union.
Key talks take place under the UN in Bali, Indonesia, in December on how to deepen emissions cuts when the treaty's current commitments expires at the end of 2012.
The 16 nations gathered in Washington are Australia, Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the United States.
Together they account for about two-thirds of the world's population, 80 percent of the global economy and about 80 percent of global emissions, according to US figures. Representatives from the EU presidency and Commission and from the UNFCCC are also there.
It was to wrap up on Friday with what US diplomats hope will be an agreement on a broad agenda for a series of talks throughout 2008.
The proposed scope is for setting national emissions targets as well as a possible long-term global emissions goal, and for initiatives that will encourage businesses and cleaner technology.
Protestors were to gather outside the State Department as Bush was to make his speech, Friends of the Earth (FoE) said.
"Instead of getting serious about reducing emissions, he proposes a voluntary approach that will lead to global warming catastrophe," said FoE's US president, Brent Blackwelder.
"Rather than joining the rest of the world and doing all he can to support the United Nations framework, he proposes separate meetings to sidetrack the UN process."
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