guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 September 2009 19.56 BST
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent
The G20 did agree to back Obama's efforts to end the annual subsidies on fossil fuels, which globally cost $300bn. Photograph: Frank Krahmer/Getty Images
Barack Obama has talked down the importance of sealing a global deal on climate change before the end of the year, world leaders said yesterday.
Obama's comments, made in private talks at the G20 summit, downplay the need to reach a strong deal at UN talks in Copenhagen in December and contradict the United Nations and others, who have billed the meeting as a crucial moment for the world to avoid catastrophic global warming. The president did win a partial victory on his signature climate issue at this G20 summit – removing fossil fuel subsidies – but there was no headway on the much bigger issue of climate finance, which Obama had taken up as his issue at the last G20.
Barring small but significant steps forward from China and India, there has been little progress this week at a UN summit or the G20 towards a deal at Copenhagen. Obama's remarks yesterday resonated among world leaders, who have been looking to America – as historically the world's greatest polluter – to lead on climate change.
"I would cite what President Obama said to us at our meetings and that is that while Copenhagen is a very important meeting we should not view it as a make or break on climate change. It will be a step, an ongoing step, in an important world process to deal with this critical issue," Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, said yesterday. Harper cited the comments when he said he was not inclined to take up Gordon Brown's challenge to attend the meeting himself, in order to add political weight to the negotiations.
South Korea's Lee Myung-bak also referenced Obama's remarks. "The Copenhagen climate summit meeting is not the end, but it is going to be the start of a new beginning, and having that kind of perception is more realistic," he said. There was no immediate comment from the White House on Obama's remarks.
It is accepted that the Copenhagen negotiations will not be able to finalise all details of a treaty to get the world to act together on global warming. But Obama's comments could jeopardise efforts to get the most comprehensive agreement possible, said observers. "What is causing increasing concern is the continuing deadlock in political action to deal with this challenge," said Rajendra Pachauri, the UN top climate scientist who shared a Nobel peace prize with Al Gore. The G20 did agree to back Obama's efforts to end the world's $300bn of annual subsidies on fossil fuel, which encourage the burning of polluting fuels. However, the leaders failed to agree on Obama's five-year time frame for phasing out subsidies, agreeing only on "medium term" action.
The subsidy deal will do little to advance the Copenhagen negotiations, said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's clearly a victory for Obama to get something meaningful on this," he said. "But it is not going to help us get a deal at Copenhagen."
The issue that could have unlocked negotiations – finance for developing countries to cope with global warming impacts and pay for green energy technology – got pushed to the sidelines at Pittsburgh. Although Obama had wanted this G20 to produce hard figures on climate finance, world leaders decided instead to postpone the issue to a finance ministers' meeting in November.