The U.N.'s environment chief said Tuesday he is optimistic that the climate change talks beginning in Copenhagen next week will reach a deal setting firm targets to cut carbon emissions.
Recent offers by the United States and China appear modest compared with European Union proposals and scientists' demands, but probably represent only first offers, said Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Program.
"This is a dramatic negotiation process in its final lap," Steiner told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the Dec. 7-18, U.N.-led talks in the Danish capital.
"To me, there is enough reason to have a sense of optimism right now that a deal could be made in Copenhagen that is not just a political deal, but is meaningful in terms of the scientific targets," he said after meeting environmental groups in Geneva.
Governments have cautioned that the conference is unlikely to produce a binding agreement to substantially cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases believed responsible for global warming.
That prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to urge the Copenhagen meeting to produce a political commitment to limit global warming that can result in a binding treaty in 2010. Tuesday's German daily Tagesspiegel quoted Merkel as saying global warming is one of humanity's most important issues and that an international commitment is needed to prevent potentially disastrous climate change.
Scientists say rich countries must reduce carbon dioxide emissions 25-40 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels. U.S. and Chinese offers have been far below that benchmark.
"It's a fairly broad range," Steiner said of the target set by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "There is room in there to find compromise and at the same time to provide credible leadership."
Such leadership could come from the United States or even China now that both have put forward their own proposals to cut carbon emissions after years of shying away from firm pledges, he said.
President Barack Obama's proposal to reduce U.S. emissions by the equivalent of 4 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and China's offer to nearly halve the ratio of pollution to GDP over the next decade, will be taken as signals they are prepared to negotiate, Steiner said. That means they are probably not final offers.
That was evident on Tuesday, when European leaders urged China to provide details about how it plans to curb its emissions.
"To me, what President Obama has signaled is this is a floor at which the United States comes into the negotiation process," he said. "It is not the ceiling, and therefore let us see what can happen over the next few days."
Likewise, Beijing's offer is "significant beyond the numbers," he said, because it implies real Chinese commitment.
"I think those numbers can still evolve."