At Climate Summit, Subtle Shifts in Positions for US and China

CANCUN—Figuring out what to make of China is always a touchy subject in the context of a global climate negotiations. The standoff between the United States and China was the flash point in Copenhagen last year, with the final late night haggling session consumed by disagreement over the wording of the brief political agreement. Maybe it's the sunnier climes, or the significantly dialed-back expectations, but there seems to be some softening of relations between the two countries here this year.

On Monday, China seemed to indicate that it might be taking a different tack on crucial questions about how to formalize emission reduction commitments made in the Copenhagen Accord and set up an international system for reviewing whether countries are meeting those goals. But what the Chinese actually said is somewhat ambiguous. Here's what China's climate envoy told Reuters:

"We can create a resolution and that resolution can be binding on China," said Huang Huikang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's envoy for climate change talks.

"Under the (U.N. Climate) Convention, we can even have a legally binding decision. We can discuss the specific form. We can make our efforts a part of international efforts."

Some here hailed the remark as a "game-changer." But China's chief negotiator Xie Zenhua was somewhat more circumspect, repeating the country's previous statements that the developing countries still intends to make its emission reductions "voluntarily."

What exactly Xie means by "voluntarily" is unclear—as is whether China is willing to formalize the emissions-reduction commitment it made in last year's accord. Making the same commitment under the UN's Conference of the Parties (COP) protocol would represent a much more formal pledge than last year's political agreement.

"If they were wiling to put it in a COP decision, that would be a game-changer," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program athe World Resources Institute. "Up until this point they've been opposed."

"We are seeing much more flexibility in China's position," said Ailun Yang, a spokesperson for Greenpeace China. "This is probably the most flexibility we have seen from China coming out of Copenhagen. It is focusing more on what it can do instead of just busy responding from provocation from other countries."

US climate envoy Todd Stern was less charitable about what he interpreted from China's remarks, while expressing his "enormous respect and fondness" for Xie. "I don't see anything new in it," said Stern, arguing that a pledge on an "autonomous or voluntary basis … is exactly what happened last year. That's the Copenhagen Accord as far as I'm concerned."

The issue of transparency is still a key sticking point. Stern was somewhat more enthusiastic about new language on the subject released Tuesday (updated from text released over the weekend). "It's a step in the right direction," Stern said. "If we can keep moving a few steps, we might get there." The US envoy also had positive things to say about a proposal on the subject from the Indian delegation—which China has also said it is willing to work from.

One thing the US may have displayed some new flexibility on is the question of moving forward on other elements of a deal. The US positioning throughout the conference has been that America believes a "balanced package" requires equitable progress on all issues—which also includes the creation of a global climate fund, formalizing emission reduction pledges, and the discussion of deforestation and technology transfer programs. Stern repeated that call on Monday. But on Tuesday, he appeared to dial back the US demand for "equitable progress," and mentioned "roughly comparable progress on all of them" instead.

It's a small nuance. But then again, so is much of what happens in these negotiations. What will matter ultimately is how much flexibility key parties (especially the US and China) show in the final days of the conference.

"The challenge is for everyone to be equally unhappy at the end of the day," said WRI's Morgan. "This is a pressing time in the negotiations. At some point they have to start moving and not just repeating the same position they've had for three years."