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Is China's Climate Position Softening?

At this point, we can make out the trench lines in the ongoing talks over a global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. China and India don't want to adopt hard caps on greenhouse-gas emissions just yet. They argue that most of the excess carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere was put there by industrialized powers like the United States and Europe, so it's only fair that those same wealthy countries do the initial heavy lifting to curb emissions, giving the developing nations more time to focus on economic growth, get rich, electrify their rural areas, and so forth.

That argument's certainly not preposterous. There's also some merit to China's contention that about one-fifth of its growing carbon emissions come from factories making junk that gets shipped off to the West—so if, say, the EU's so concerned about China's pollution problem, then Europeans ought to help foot the cleaning bill. But fair or not, Western countries aren't exactly thrilled with this argument, and it's created a real impasse in the negotiations. So it's noteworthy that, according to today's Wall Street Journal, China may be softening its stance:

China appears to have shifted subtly recently, with some influential Chinese economists arguing that China might soon be rich enough to afford some of the changes necessary to combat global warming.

[China climate envoy Yu Qingtai] also offered a sign that China is taking the first steps toward figuring out how much it could cap while still growing enough to reach its economic goals. He said Chinese scientists were looking at what would be China's peak emissions, or the level at which economic growth could continue and emissions could be cut back.

You can see the outlines of a possible deal here. As I've written previously, some China experts like Carnegie's Bill Chandler envision a scenario in which Beijing doesn't adopt a hard emissions cap immediately, but does agree to start taking verifiable steps to promote clean power and decrease carbon intensity (that is, becoming more efficient and slowing the rate of emissions growth). Then, by 2025 or so, the country agrees to adopt a hard cap and actually starts lowering its overall greenhouse-gas emissions.

Officially, China hasn't proposed this option—much like India, they won't even talk about hard emissions caps. But at least one quasi-governmental think tank in Beijing has begun modeling what would happen if the country did adopt a hard carbon cap in 2025. And now Yu's suggesting that Chinese scientists are studying peak-emissions scenarios, and economists are arguing that China can afford to take more drastic action. Meanwhile, China still sounds genuinely committed to hammering out a global climate treaty, despite disagreements. None of this amounts to a negotiating breakthrough, yet, but it's better than total deadlock.

P.S. Even though China and India usually get lumped together in reports on global climate talks, they have slightly different positions. If anything, India's been even more resistant to the idea of carbon caps for developing nations (with 480 million Indians still without electricity, the country isn't ready to start cutting emissions yet). But Paul Beckett reported yesterday that even the Indian government is trying to grope for common ground behind the scenes—they don't want to be seen as the country that blows up the Copenhagen talks.

(Flickr photo credit: Natalie Behring)