By Alister Doyle and Stian Reklev
DOHA (Reuters) - The United States resisted pledging steeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 on Monday despite calls by poor nations at the start of a U.N conference for tougher action to avert storms, droughts and rising seas.
About 200 nations met for annual U.N. talks on global warming with little prospect of a breakthrough and recriminations over how to keep alive hopes of a new, global U.N. deal to fight climate change meant to start up in 2020.
"We're sleepwalking off a cliff," Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. There was a lack of ambition to confront rising world greenhouse gas emissions at the two-week meeting, the first in an OPEC nation, he said.
U.S. deputy climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said that President Barack Obama was sticking to his 2009 goal of cutting emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That target was not approved by the U.S. Senate.
"I do not anticipate that the United States will modify the commitment we have made," he told a news conference. Washington was taking aggressive action to cut emissions and its national emissions may have peaked, he said.
Obama has said that he will focus more on climate change in his second term.
China's chief delegate Su Wei insisted that the rich should extend the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, the existing plan that binds developed nations to cut emissions by at least 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.
"If there is not agreement on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ... I think that would be disastrous for talks on future enhanced action after 2020," he said, referring to plans for a global U.N. pact meant to be agreed by 2015.
"If we cannot agree on immediate actions, how can anyone agree on future actions?" he said, urging the rich to do more.
A group of more than 100 developing nations also said developed countries should do more to avoid damage on a "previously unimaginable scale".
China has overtaken the United States as the top emitter, ahead of India and Russia.
The European Union has also said that it has no plans to increase its goal for cutting emissions, to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, in Doha. The U.S. goal corresponds to a cut of 3-4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Pershing said that extreme weather, including Superstorm Sandy and widespread droughts in the United States "are certainly changing the minds of Americans" who have often been sceptical about the need for more action on climate change.
A U.N. study last week said the world was on target for a rise in temperatures of between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 9F) because of increasing emissions.
A U.N. conference two years ago agreed to limit any rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial times. But greenhouse gas levels hit a new record in 2011, despite the world economic slowdown.
Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said countries need to act now to keep down costs of confronting climate change.
"All reports say that it is much more preferable to act now because it is safer and much less costly," she said.
Most countries favor extending the 1997 Kyoto pact. But Russia, Japan and Canada have pulled out, meaning that Kyoto backers are down to a core led by the European Union and Australia that account for about 14 percent of world emissions.
Drop-outs say it is meaningless to extend cuts under Kyoto when big emerging countries have no curbs on rising emissions. The United States never ratified Kyoto, for similar reasons.
"For world emissions to peak we need an agreement that is applicable to all nations," Pershing said.
Developing countries and Kyoto backers say it is vital that developed nations lead the way towards the new worldwide accord meant to be negotiated by the end of 2015 and to start in 2020.
Failure to extend Kyoto would leave only national actions, with no legally binding U.N. framework.
Also at the talks, Qatar rejected criticisms of its own record. Its emissions, three times those of Americans, are the biggest per capita in the world, due to oil and gas production.
"We should not focus on the amount per capita but on the total per country," conference president Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said. He said Qatar was working to cut emissions.
(Reporting By Alister Doyle; editing by Jason Webb)