UN chief calls for action on climate change in 2008 as 2-day debate opens

Eds: RECASTS and UPDATES with new quotes from secretary-general, General Assembly president and NYC mayor; ADDS photos.

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Associated Press Writer

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday urged nations to join the private companies, civic groups and individuals this year in sustaining "the unprecedented momentum" to fight global warming.

"If 2007 was the year when climate change rose to the top of the global agenda, 2008 is the time we must take concerted action," Ban said at the start of a two-day U.N. General Assembly debate to generate support for a new treaty by 2009 to fight global warming.

General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim invited U.N. member states, government officials and business and civic leaders to the United Nations to follow up December's international climate conference on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. There, delegates from nearly 190 nations agreed to adopt a blueprint to control global warming gases before the end of next year.

"The conference delivered what it set out to do," Ban said. "Now the real work begins. The challenge is huge. We have less than two years to craft an agreement on action that measures up to what the science tells us."

In key reports last year, a U.N. network of climate and other scientists warned of severe consequences -- from rising seas, droughts, severe weather, species extinction and other effects -- without sharp cutbacks in emissions of the industrial, transportation and agricultural gases blamed for global warming.

To avoid the worst, the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 -- and by at least half by 2050.

"This is just as important as stopping nuclear proliferation. This is just as important as stopping terrorism," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday in the keynote address.

The new agreement would replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires 36 industrial nations to radically reduce emissions by 2012, when it expires. The United States is the only major industrial country that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

A new agreement needs to be adopted by the end of 2009 to ensure a smooth transition to a new post-Kyoto regime. Before then, Ban said, the international community must map emission limitation commitments; mobilize the financing needed and technological innovation; and agree on "essential action to adapt to the impacts of climate change."

He called on governments, organizations, and individuals around the world to "help sustain the unprecedented momentum that propelled the climate change agenda forward so dramatically last year."

"Developed countries need to take a clear lead, but success is possible only if all countries act," Ban said. "The more ambitious the commitments by developed countries, the more actions we can expect from developing countries."

Kerim said new technologies, renewable energies and more research are essential to solve the problem.

"What is needed is ... a global alliance for action, shared by individuals, the media, lawmakers, business leaders, governments, regional organizations and ultimately the global community embodied in the U.N," Kerim said. "Only then will we have a chance to tackle this enormous challenge to our way of life."

Bloomberg said the world's cities can help lead the way toward reducing the greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet. He also called on the United States to set "real and binding" targets to reduce emissions, instead of the current U.S. strategy that largely relies on voluntary approaches and spending for research and technology.

"I believe that the American people are prepared for our responsibility to lead by example," he said.

Special guests at the climate debate include British billionaire Richard Branson, who has decided to invest heavily in "biofuels," and actress Daryl Hannah. Nearly 100 countries have signed up to speak and 20 are sending ministers, assembly spokesman Janos Tisovszky said Friday.

The debate follows a recent report by the secretary-general which said global warming could cost the world up to $20 trillion over two decades for cleaner energy sources and do the most harm to people who can least afford to adapt.