At Climate Talks, a Familiar Standoff Between U.S. and China
By JOHN M. BRODER
Published: December 7, 2011
DURBAN, South Africa — China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has once again emerged as the biggest puzzle at international climate change talks, sending ambiguous signals about the role it intends to play in future negotiations. This week, the nation’s top climate envoy said that China would be open to signing a formal treaty limiting emissions after 2020 — but laid down conditions for doing so that are unlikely ever to be met.
China’s lead negotiator at the United Nations climate change talks here, Xie Zhenhua, said that China was prepared to enter into a legally binding agreement after current voluntary programs expire at the end of the decade, seemingly a major step. China has always contended that because of its rapid economic growth and the persistent poverty of millions of its citizens, it cannot be bound by the same emissions standards as advanced industrialized nations.
Mr. Xie outlined five conditions under which China would consider joining such a treaty as a full partner, the major one being that China and other rapidly growing economies must be treated differently from the so-called rich countries. But that has been a deal-breaker for the United States for years and is the central reason that the Senate refused to even consider ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement whose goal, still unmet, is to limit global greenhouse gas emissions.
“These conditions are not new,” Mr. Xie acknowledged at a briefing here where more than 190 nations are gathered for the 17th annual conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “These have been negotiated for the past 20 years.
“What is most important so far is to implement existing commitments and review efforts undertaken by the parties, and after that we can think about what should be done after 2020 and beyond.”
Todd D. Stern, the American climate change envoy, said that the United States would be happy to discuss a formal treaty and then spelled out his conditions, which also were not new and appeared to rule out any sort of deal like that envisioned by Mr. Xie.
For a legally binding agreement to take hold, “it’s going to be absolutely critical that it applies to all the major players, and China obviously is one of them,” Mr. Stern said at a briefing.