UNITED NATIONS -- In the end, the two most important world leaders at the first-ever U.N. Summit on Climate Change didn't say enough to satisfy supporters or quell critics.
President Obama, taking the dais before more than 100 heads of state, pledged that the United States would help lead the world in permanently reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Chinese President Hu Jintao announced that his country would cut carbon intensity by a "notable margin" per unit of economic growth.
Both speeches, closely watched and hotly anticipated, did win praise in some quarters. And many said simply the fact that dozens of leaders publicly vowed action on emissions may inject new momentum into the global climate change negotiations. Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who convened the summit, declared the meeting a success.
"Without today's summit, the world would not cross over the finish line in Copenhagen," he said. "Tonight, I sense we are closer to a deal."
But from the hallways outside the U.N. General Assembly to the corridors of the U.S. Congress, few supporters of a global climate change treaty -- and even fewer opponents -- said they felt the declarations from either Obama or Hu would do much to break the logjams facing international negotiators this year.
"It was a push in the right direction," David Waskow, Oxfam's climate change policy director, said of the summit. "They've got a lot of work to do."
Fading hopes for Copenhagen
The daylong meeting of speeches and roundtable talks among nations came as negotiators from 192 countries prepare for a sweeping U.N. climate meeting in Copenhagen in December. That venue once was seen as the place where leaders might piece together a new agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but with plans to pass cap-and-trade legislation in the United States waning and nations still battling over emissions targets and dollar figures, hopes for that are fading.
Many leaders now are openly saying they hope to emerge from Copenhagen with a "framework" that can be filled in with specific pledges over the following year, though it remains unclear what such a document would look like.
Ban yesterday in no uncertain terms told world leaders they were "too slow" in their actions. He called failing to get a broad agreement in Copenhagen "unacceptable" and called on heads of state to give their nations' negotiators marching orders to seal a deal.
Few expected much groundbreaking to emerge from the summit -- until Monday, when U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer previewed Hu's speech and declared that it would reveal China to be a "world leader" in addressing climate change.
But while China experts called Hu's promise of carbon intensity targets significant, members of the U.S. Congress were not impressed. Even key figures like former Vice President Al Gore offered only tepid applause. Many said they were disappointed that the pledge did not carry with it any specifics. Hu did not outline targets, nor did he say whether China's reduction of carbon intensity would be economywide.
"I think the glass is pretty much half full where China is concerned," Gore said.
Michael Levi, an energy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, was blunt. "The Chinese had gone out of their way, along with U.N. officials, to emphasize the importance of this speech. It didn't deliver on that."
Among Senate lawmakers, the response ranged from lukewarm praise to outright skepticism.
"It was helpful," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who has in the past expressed both support for cap-and-trade legislation and deep concern about losing U.S. jobs to China.
"I want to make sure there's enforcement, so they follow the rules," she said. "They have an unfortunate track record on [trade] rules. We need enforcement."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-authored cap-and-trade bills earlier in the decade that died in the Senate, said he is waiting to see the details of China's plan.
"They have made such proposals in the past, and the devils have been in the details," McCain said. Asked if China's move could be a game-changer in the Senate, he replied with an emphatic "no."
And Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it a "constructive statement by China" -- but not one that will change minds in the Senate.
"It's a public relations move," Lugar said.
Experts also were divided on China's plan. Lee Lane, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that without a plan for actually reducing the number of coal-fired power plants China builds each year, the other measures "do not really represent a serious effort in reducing GHG emissions."
China's details are under 'discussion'
But Barbara Finamore, who heads the Natural Resources Defense Council's Beijing office, called the plan "significant" and appropriate for a country that, while wealthy in some respects, still has overwhelming areas of rural poverty. Even so, she allowed, the heft of China's promise depends on the final numbers.
Hu also yesterday outlined measures to bring the percentage of China's non-fossil-fuel energy consumption from 7 percent to 15 percent in the coming decade, and to increase forest cover by 40 million hectares.
Xie Zhenhua, China's lead climate negotiator, said late yesterday that leaders are "in the process of study and discussion."
"I believe our targets are very ambitious, and after further study and discussion, we will announce the exact number very soon," he said. Xie declined to comment on Senate skepticism toward China's plan.
Meanwhile, though, observers were hardly more pleased with Obama's speech. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers praised it, but groups pressing for a global climate deal said he hadn't done enough: Namely, they said, Obama should have laid out a game plan for how he intends to get Senate passage of cap-and-trade legislation in time for the world's largest meeting on climate change.
Obama touted his administration's achievements -- from the federal economic stimulus package investment in clean energy production to recent regulatory actions at U.S. EPA -- and hailed the House passage in June of cap-and-trade legislation. But he did not promise to get a climate bill passed before Copenhagen.
And while he told world leaders, "I'm here today to say difficulty is no excuse for complacency," several activists noted that his speech seemed in many ways to downplay Copenhagen's importance in the climate fight.
"It's a big missed opportunity," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. "He hit the right notes, but what we were looking for was a crescendo."
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.