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A layer of smog can be seen above Manhattan through the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York on May 21, 2009. (LUCAS JACKSON/LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
A layer of smog can be seen above Manhattan through the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York on May 21, 2009. (LUCAS JACKSON/LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

U.S. makes first move at Copenhagen Add to ...

The Obama administration delivered a much-needed jolt of optimism on the opening day of the Copenhagen climate change summit by declaring greenhouse gases a health hazard, strengthening the President's hand to push for deal at the make-or-break meeting.

The ruling about the health dangers of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases would allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Air Act to regulate industrial emissions, potentially making climate-change legislation, now stalled in the U.S. Senate, unnecessary.

Environmental groups said the ruling will help give U.S. President Barack Obama the moral authority to push hard for a successful global carbon-reduction deal at the Copenhagen summit, which is to end Dec. 18 when 192 countries are due to lend their political endorsement to a new climate-change accord.

"President Obama's [EPA]decision today sends an important signal to the Copenhagen Climate Summit that the President can act, regardless of whether Congress passes legislation to cut greenhouse gases," Greenpeace International said.

EPA head Lisa Jackson is to build on U.S. carbon-reduction momentum by addressing the Copenhagen summit Wednesday. "Climate change has now become a household issue," she said Monday. "This administration will not ignore science or the law any longer, nor will we ignore the responsibility we owe to our children and our grandchildren."

The EPA's move was condemned by many industrial and business groups, who said regulations would destroy jobs, raise the price of energy and be horrendously costly to administer. They prefer a less heavy handed legislative approach. Under pressure from the EPA, the Senate may redouble its efforts to break its legislative stalemate. Despite the EPA ruling, Mr. Obama "still believes the best way to move forward is through the legislative process," according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Praise for the Obama administration's move came as Canada's already battered image at the summit took another blow. Last night a coalition of 450 environmental groups awarded Canada a Fossil of the Day award, given to the countries "doing the most to obstruct progress in the global climate change talks."

In a press conference, Michael Martin, Canada's chief climate change negotiator, made it clear that Canada's would not alter its stated carbon reduction targets, which are among the lowest of the industrialized countries.

Canada has committed to a 20 per cent reduction by 2020, but from a new base - 2006. The figure translates into a mere 3 per cent reduction from 1990, the base year for the Kyoto Protocol, the climate change agreement that is to expire in 2012. Canada's emissions were supposed to fall under Kyoto. Instead they rose 26 per cent.

Mr. Martin said that even though Canada is not altering its carbon-reduction target, Canada's presence in Copenhagen is worthwhile. "This is a much broader process" than just setting emission targets, he said, noting the discussions also focus on implementation of any new accord, green-technology transfers to developing countries and climate-change adaptation.

John Dexhage, director of climate change and energy for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and a former negotiator for Canada on the Kyoto Protocol, said "Canada is the only country in Kyoto calling for a 2006 base year. Canada is totally isolated" (The United States did not ratify Kyoto).

In Ottawa, environment minister Jim Prentice denied widespread criticism that Canada was a laggard in Copenhagen. "We'll take on our just and fair share of that [treaty]obligation, bearing in mind that Canada only emits two per cent of the world's greenhouse gases," he told reporters. "This is a treaty that is going to require all of the major emitters including China, including the United States as signatories and that's what we're working towards."

Only a few days ago, expectations of success at Copenhagen were low, partly because the EPA had yet to make its ruling and partly because of serious questions about the legitimacy of climate science. Those doubts intensified when leaked e-mails from climate-change scientists of the University of East Anglia appeared to undermine some of the evidence that the planet was becoming warmer.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top oil exporters, said the e-mails have raised skepticism about IPCC's reliability. "The level of trust is definitely shaken," said Mohammed al-Sabban.

Rajendra Pauchauri, head of the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, used Copenhagen's opening session to defend the science. He said IPCC's findings in 2007 that humans are almost certainly to blame for global warming were "subjected to extensive and repeated reviews by experts as well as by governments."

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen urged the countries at the summit to compromise to achieve one of the most important agreements that the world would ever make. "The political resolve to forge a global deal is manifest," he said. "Differences can be overcome if the political will is present. I believe it is."

With a report from Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa

Your Copenhagen questions answered:

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