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By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States unveiled its proposal to cut greenhouse gases by 2020 on Wednesday and said President Barack Obama will attend U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen next month -- before other world leaders show up.
Obama will go to the December 7-18 talks in Denmark on December 9, the eve of a ceremony in nearby Oslo, Norway, where he will collect the Nobel Peace Prize, the White House said.
He is not scheduled to return, however, for the final days when most of the hard bargaining is likely and dozens of other leaders are slated to attend.
The White House said the United States will pledge in Copenhagen to cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a drop of about 3 percent below the 1990 benchmark year used in U.N. treaties.
That figure is in line with legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives but is less ambitious than a 20 percent reduction sought in a Senate version that has been delayed.
U.S. negotiators consulted with lawmakers before arriving at the proposed figure and said it would be flexible based on the outcome of final domestic legislation.
Senate support will be required to ratify any treaty that comes out of Copenhagen or follow-up meetings, so U.S. envoys are eager for backing from lawmakers.
The United States is the last major industrialized country to offer a target for cutting greenhouse gases in a U.N.-led drive to slow rising world temperatures that could bring more heat-waves, expanding deserts, floods and rising sea levels.
The White House said it hoped Obama's attendance would give momentum to the Copenhagen talks.
"The president going to Copenhagen will give positive momentum to the negotiations, and we think will enhance the prospects for success," said Michael Froman, a deputy national security adviser to Obama and one of his climate advisers.
Activists and other officials agreed.
"If he can deliver on his election campaign statements that Copenhagen needs to be a success by coming to Copenhagen himself, that I think will be critical to a good outcome," U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer told reporters in Germany.
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said: "I am pleased the American president will visit Copenhagen. The strong commitment of the American president to the climate change issue is very valuable."
'RIGHT CITY, WRONG DATE'
Some green groups were disappointed that he would miss the climax when other leaders arrive. "The right city, the wrong date; it seems that he's just not taking this issue seriously," said Kyle Ash, Greenpeace USA climate policy advisor.
More than 75 world leaders have confirmed they will attend the conference, which the Danish hosts hope will clinch a deal laying the foundation for a treaty to be agreed to in 2010.
The European Union is pressing for more aggressive cuts and has pledged at least a 20 percent cut in its emissions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.
Though the U.S. figure was constrained by the bills in Congress, some environmentalists said it could have been stronger.
"The President needs to do more than just show up; he must ensure that the United States promotes real solutions, including stronger emissions reduction targets and funding for developing countries to deal with climate impacts," said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica.
Looking beyond 2020, the United States will also propose emissions cuts of 18 percent by 2025 and 32 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, White House officials said.
Many governments and analysts have blamed the U.S. failure to propose a carbon cutting target sooner for the delay in agreement on a full climate treaty.
"In the last two years, we have wasted a lot of time on marginal issues, technical issues, we haven't focussed on the core questions in the negotiations," Yu Qingtai, China's climate change ambassador, said on Wednesday.
Yu hinted that China would bow to a milder ambition for the summit in Copenhagen: "We think that the actual content of whatever is achieved is more important than the title of the document that is produced."
China had previously said only that it was "studying" the Danish proposal to defer agreement on a full treaty until 2010.
The United Nations' de Boer said the world was depending on U.S. leadership. "The world is very much looking to the United States," he said.
New Zealand's revised emissions trading plan passed into law on Wednesday, while neighbouring Australia moved a step closer to ending a deadlock stalling its carbon-trade legislation ahead of a vote this week.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)

Reuters