DOHA, Qatar - Even as international climate talks ended this weekend with no new commitments on carbon emissions or climate aid from the United States, some were relieved America didn't make a weak deal even weaker.
Other countries are now watching to see if the Obama administration will back up post-election comments about climate change with renewed efforts to cut emissions at home, and pave the way for more ambitious targets as work proceeds to adopt a new global climate pact in 2015.
The two-week talks in Doha ended with an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which was to expire this year, but which now will only cover 15 per cent of global emissions since several developed countries, including Japan and Canada, have opted out. The U.S. never ratified the accord.
European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said Sunday that the U.S. negotiators were "careful not to block" the negotiations, adding that it's "still difficult to know whether they will actually invest political capital in committing to a new international deal."
In an emailed comment to The Associated Press, Hedegaard said she hopes Obama "will present not only an enhanced domestic climate policy but also an enhanced U.S. engagement and willingness to commit more in an international climate context."
Both rich and poor countries have long accused the U.S. of hampering the global effort to fight climate change, which scientists say is raising sea levels, threatening low-lying areas and island nations, and shifting weather patterns with impacts on droughts, floods and the frequency of devastating storms.
Alone among industrialized nations, the U.S. rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the only binding treaty to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The Bush administration said it would hurt the U.S. economy and that it was unfair because it didn't include emerging economies including China and India.
Hopes for stronger U.S. leadership in the U.N. talks under Obama were dashed when emissions-capping legislation stalled in Congress. But expectations rose anew this year after Hurricane Sandy pushed climate change back in the domestic political debate.
After his re-election, Obama talked about "the destructive power of a warming planet," and said he hoped to open a national conversation on the issue.
"I think what we saw from the U.S. in Doha was a mixed performance," said Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
He said the U.S. was a "major impediment" in negotiations to ramp up climate aid to help poor countries shift to clean energy and adapt to rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change.
On the other hand, the U.S. acknowledged that it has more work to do at home to meet its voluntary pledge of reducing emissions by 17 per cent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.
"Also, the lead U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, expressed a newfound willingness to discuss how to equitably share responsibility amongst countries for making the substantial post-2020 emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," Meyer said. "These were both positive signals in Doha."
Some were relieved that U.S. negotiators didn't block a proposal by small island nations to discuss "loss and damage," which relates to damages from climate-related disasters.
Small island nations under threat from rising sea levels have been pushing for some mechanism to help them cope with such natural catastrophes, but the U.S. had pushed back over concerns it might be held liable for the cleanup bill since it is the world's second-biggest emitter behind China.
The Doha deal doesn't establish that kind of mechanism, but says that countries agree to talk about it.
"It is a significant change in (the U.S.) stance and big unexpected outcome for Doha," said Iain Keith, senior campaigner with activist group Avaaz.
He said overall there was "subtle yet significant shift" in the U.S. position in the talks.
"Many parties will be disappointed that the U.S. didn't come here and offer more on finance," he said. "But with the fiscal cliff discussion in Washington, their hands are tied," he added, referring to the looming combination of automatic tax increases and U.S. government spending cuts early next year.
The Doha deal included vague language on how rich countries would scale up climate aid to $100 billion annually by 2020 — a goal agreed to three years ago. With budgets under stress from financial turmoil, developed countries resisted calls by developing countries to make firm commitments.
"I think in general donor countries with some exceptions were not in a position to put hard numbers on table for all sorts of reasons among them fiscal challenges that we are facing in the U.S. and Europe is facing," said Stern, the U.S. climate envoy.
In news conferences in Doha, the U.S. delegates stressed what the administration has already done: increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, worked to boost energy efficiency in buildings and invested in green energy.
Wael Hmaidan, a Lebanese activist and director of the Climate Action Network, said he was disappointed that the U.S. didn't offer more in Doha, especially on financing for poor countries.
"We were hoping there would be some kind of movement after the election," he said. "We knew there wouldn't be any major change but we hoped there would be more flexibility and room and this was not demonstrated."
Some may have overestimated how quickly Obama's comments on climate change would translate into action, said Jake Schmidt, of the Natural Resource Defence Council.
"Things take time to settle in the U.S.," he said. "But I think there's a growing sense that climate change is real, extreme weather is happening in the U.S. It shows up in all the polls."
Schmidt said the administration could achieve further emissions cuts with new standards on existing coal-fired power plants.
AP Environment Writer Michael Casey contributed to this report.
Ritter can be reached at www.twitter.com/karl_ritter and Casey can be reached at www.twitter.com/mcasey1