BEIJING - China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, yesterday lauded the outcome of a historic U.N. climate conference, which ended with a nonbinding agreement that urges major polluters to make deeper emissions cuts but that does not require it.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the international climate talks that brought more than 110 leaders together in Copenhagen, Denmark, produced "significant and positive" results.

The Obama administration also defended the agreement as a "great step forward," despite disappointment among environmentalists that the pact does not include mandatory targets that would carry sanctions.

"Nobody says that this is the end of the road. The end of the road would have been the complete collapse of those talks. This is a great step forward," White House adviser David Axelrod told CNN's State of the Union.

Disputes between rich and poor countries and between the world's biggest carbon polluters - China and the United States - dominated the two-week conference. Thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand action to cool an overheating planet.

The meeting ended Saturday after a 31-hour negotiating marathon, with delegates accepting a U.S.-brokered compromise.

The so-called Copenhagen Accord calls for reducing emissions to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

It gives billions of dollars in climate aid to poor nations, but it does not require the world's major polluters to make deeper cuts in the emissions of their greenhouse gases.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted yesterday as telling the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that "Copenhagen is a first step toward a new world climate order - no more, but also no less."

Merkel said that "anyone who just bad-mouths Copenhagen now is engaging in the business of those who are applying the brakes rather than moving forward."

Yang said the positive outcomes of the conference were that it upheld the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" recognized by the previous Kyoto Protocol on climate, and took a step forward in promoting binding emissions cuts for developed countries and voluntary mitigating actions by developing ones.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which the United States rejected, 37 industrial nations were already modestly cutting back on their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Under the new, nonbinding agreement, those richer nations, including the United States, are to list their individual emissions targets; developing countries must list what actions they will take to reduce the growth in their global-warming pollution by specific amounts.

"Developing and developed countries are very different in their historical emissions responsibilities and current emissions levels, and in their basic national characteristics and development stages," Yang said in a statement. "Therefore, they should shoulder different responsibilities and obligations in fighting climate change."

China has said it will rein in its output of greenhouse gases output, pledging to reduce its carbon intensity - its use of fossil fuels per unit of economic output - 40 percent to 45 percent.

The European Union has committed to cutting emissions 20 percent by 2020, compared with 1990 levels; Japan by 25 percent, if others take similar steps, and the United States provisionally by 3 percent to 4 percent.

The accord emerged principally from President Obama's meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa.

The agreement was protested by nations that demanded deeper emissions cuts by the industrialized world.