Straight Talk: German Environment Minister Gets Audience with Obama

By Christian Schwägerl

In a surprising move, Barack Obama met with Germany's environment minister in Washington on Monday. Sigmar Gabriel reportedly called on the Americans to make further reductions in CO2 emissions -- a move developing countries are also demanding before they agree to any cuts.

At best, heads of government around the world can expect a few minutes to meet with Barack Obama -- and people working at the ministerial level from abroad can generally forget about getting any face time in the Oval Office.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: Straight talk with the US president.
DPA

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel: Straight talk with the US president.

But on Monday, despite the economic crisis and the outbreak of swine flu, the US president took time out to meet with the environment ministers and climate negotiators of the 20 countries with the world's highest levels of carbon-dioxide emissions. He had summoned them to the State Department in Washington to prepare for the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen this December.

Among the participants at the "Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate" mini-summit, which continues through Tuesday, is German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel. On Monday afternoon, attendees got a surprise when the president invited the climate group to the White House for individual discussions. Of course, the German environment minister is pleased as peaches about the photo op he got with Obama.

Members of Gabriel's delegation said the environment minister offered Obama straight talk on the issue. The minister said he was pleased the US now wants to take an active role in climate protection, but that the proposals that have been recently announced don't go far enough. He said carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, just to be in line with what climate scientists are already calling for. The ambitious US project, the so-called "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009," only foresees a reduction of 6 percent to 7 percent.

Gabriel said the US must show that it is serious about its announcements that it will be ambitious in dealing with climate protection. If the Americans don't join the European Union in taking the lead on the issue, Gabriel feels prospects for a global agreement at the Copenhagen summit, where the successor treaty to Kyoto is to be prepared, will be poor.

At the Washington climate summit, India and China made clear that they do not intend to commit themselves to any binding CO2 emissions reductions -- especially if the industrialized nations don't undertake massive reductions.

Russia, Japan and Canada have opposed the Chinese and Indian position, arguing that developing countries already emit so much CO2 that they should also be obligated to reduce emissions.

Will climate-friendly President Obama be able to surmount these opposing positions? According to Sigmar Gabriel's delegation, the German minister left his meeting with Obama feeling more optimistic.

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