PRAGUE (AFP) — President Barack Obama said Sunday the United States was ready to take the lead in tackling climate change, as EU leaders pushed him to follow their ambitious targets to combat global warming.
"To protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we use energy," Obama told a crowd gathered at Prague Castle for his only public speech during his maiden tour of Europe.
"Together we must confront climate change by ending the world's dependency on fossil fuels by tapping the power from the sources of energy like the wind and the sun and calling upon all nations to do their part.
"And I pledge to you that in this global effort the US is now ready to lead."
Obama's promise of a leading US role on climate change broke with his predecessor George W. Bush's stance, which had long frustrated Washington's European Union partners.
He was speaking ahead of his first EU-US summit, with European leaders eager for signs Washington is finally willing to commit to major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
European leaders were often exasperated by his predecessor's failure to commit the United States to climate change targets, especially because Europe has set itself ambitious goals.
Their frustration has been compounded by the fact that the United States is the world's biggest polluter, leaving the impression in Europe that EU countries are doing all the heavy-lifting in the fight against climate change.
But speaking after their talks, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he detected a genuine change under Obama.
The new administration was "much clearer and more ambitious" on climate change, he said.
"We have welcomed very positive changes the US is making.... Only together can we convince others in our common efforts to fight climate change," Barroso added.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Obama had to set an example that would be followed by developing giants.
"While we're happy that the Americans want to take the lead in the fight against climate change, they have to convince more than just the Europeans," Sarkozy told AFP.
"I told President Obama that it was very important that the United States does more so it persuade the world, notably China and India, to follow suit."
Eager to infuse new vitality into relations with Europe, Obama said that climate change was only one of the major challenges on which he aimed to cooperate along with the economic crisis and global conflicts.
"None of these challenges can be solved quickly or easily," he said.
"But all of them demand that we listen to one another and work together; that we focus on our common interests, not our occasional differences; and that we reaffirm our shared values, which are stronger than any force that could drive us apart.
"That is the work that we must carry on. That is the work that I have come to Europe to begin."
Europe has in particular been looking for new US leadership on fighting climate change ahead of an international meeting in Copenhagen in December on reaching a new pact for curbing greenhouse gases beyond 2012.
EU nations have agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, rising to 30 percent if the rest of the developed world -- mainly the United States and Japan -- agrees to do so.
The US House of Representatives recently received a draft bill for clean energy development which aims to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent from their 2005 levels by 2020 and boost reliance on renewable sources of energy.
Although the US targets were unheard of before Obama took over from Bush, they were given an extremely cautious welcome in Europe because the base year for comparisons is 15 years after that of the EU.
The new US goals, though welcome, represent just a five to six percent reduction using the EU's baseline of 1990, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said this week. German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel described them as "not enough".
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