POZNAN, Poland (Reuters) - The economic slowdown is "no excuse" to neglect a fight against global warming that could widen water shortages to half the world by 2050, delegates told the opening of U.N. climate talks in Poland on Monday.
By Gerard Wynn and Gabriela Baczynska
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama also won praise at the December 1-12 talks of 10,700 delegates from 187 nations for setting "ambitious" U.S. goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change.
"Our work on the natural environment should be timeless ... irrespective of the economic situation," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told the meeting amid worries the financial crunch will undermine efforts for a new U.N. climate treaty in 2009.
"We must understand, and let this idea be a landmark of this conference, that financial crises have happened in the past and will happen in the future," he said.
The talks in the western Polish city of Poznan are the half-way point in a two-year push agreed at a meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year to agree a new climate treaty in Copenhagen at the end of 2009 to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
Leaders of Indonesia, Poland and Denmark said the world should seize a chance to shift toward a greener economy as governments grapple with twin financial and climate crises.
"The urgency of the first is no excuse of neglecting the other," they said in a statement.
Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the U.N. Climate Panel, said that many people had still not woken up to the risks of what could be "irreversible change" if the world failed to act.
By illustration, he said the number of people living in river valleys with water stress could rise from more than 1.1 billion in 1995 to more than 4.3 billion in 2050. The world population is set to reach about 9 billion by mid-century from 6.7 billion in 2008.
It was also possible that the Greenland icecap could melt down. Ever more species of animals and plants were at risk of extinction, he said.
Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said the world had to step up work. "The clock is ticking, work now has to move into a higher gear," he said.
The WWF environmental organization handed out walnuts to delegates as they arrived at the conference center and urged them to "crack the climate nut." Greenpeace unveiled a 3 meter (10 ft) high sculpture showing the planet threatened by a giant wave of wood and coal.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised Obama's policies after years of disputes between Europe and Washington over the policies of President George W. Bush, who kept the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, a plan by 37 nations to cut emissions.
"I am delighted to see that Obama is planning ambitious climate and energy policies," he said. De Boer also described Obama's policies as "ambitious" on Sunday.
Obama plans to cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. U.S. emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels in factories, power plants and cars, are about 14 percent above 1990 levels. Bush's policies foresee a peak only in 2025.
"It is not cost free," Harlan Watson, head of the U.S. delegation, said of Obama's plan. "It is possible, but there is going to be a price attached to that."
In Europe, the economic slowdown has exposed doubts about the costs of an EU goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
Poland's Tusk said that "we are very close to attaining an agreement," but gave few details. Poland gets 93 percent of its electricity from coal and wants concessions in a package meant to be agreed at a December 11-12 summit of EU leaders.
(Writing by Alister Doyle)