CANCUN, Mexico -- China's pledge to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions will be bound by domestic law, but it is "premature" to demand the country make internationally binding commitments, a top Chinese negotiator said.
Huang Huikang, special representative for climate change negotiations in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ClimateWire that China is "poor" and "not at the same level" as the United States and is not yet prepared to agree to mandates.
"It's going to be, but this time we cannot say legally binding," Huang said. "In principle we will make our commitment under the convention, but this time it is probably premature to discuss whether China's commitment is legally binding or not."
Huang's comments came after a day of confusion and wild speculation at U.N. climate treaty talks, set off by remarks to Reuters interpreted by many to mean that China will accept legally binding targets. Though the comments appeared to be contradicted by Chinese Vice Minister Xie Zhenhua, analysts described the position as everything from a "game changer" to a key signal of that China intended to be flexible on negotiations in the coming days.
But U.S Envoy Todd Stern early in the day declared that China's offer to inscribe its existing pledge under a binding U.N. decision contained "nothing new," saying "That was the Copenhagen Accord, as far as we're concerned."
And, Stern said, because China insists that the targets be declared voluntary while U.S. and industrialized nation targets be legally binding, the position "steps backward."
Meanwhile, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told ClimateWire, "I couldn't make head or tail out of the Reuters report."
With only three negotiating days left, the kerfuffle leaves China and the United States roughly where they began when the 16th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change opened last week: close to a deal, but it appears not close enough.
If there is an agreement to be unlocked in Cancun -- and dozens of ministers insisted yesterday that there is -- China and America hold the keys.
Transparency of emissions reports remains key
The central fight is over transparency. That is, America insists that developing countries report on their efforts to cut emissions and also allow expert consultation and analysis of that reporting. China has allegedly agreed to some measure of reporting. The debate, though, is what happens to that report once it is submitted to the U.N.
Those familiar with China's position say the government is eager to agree to certain principles -- like that an international monitoring system should not be punitive or impinge on national sovereignty. But it doesn't want an expert panel to rigorously truth-squad its methods or numbers, or allow other countries to submit questions about the reports. America, meanwhile, won't approve agreements on avoiding deforestation, adaptation, technology transfer and other programs worth billions of dollars until it gets specific agreements from China on elements like having an expert review panel.
"We're looking for genuine balance," Stern said earlier this week. "That doesn't mean a great deal of detail on some issues and 50,000-foot level of principles and little else on other issues," he said.
Yet while the United States is casting China as the linchpin of the negotiations, there is anger aplenty at America inside the Moon Palace resort where talks are being held. Many say the United States is demanding compromise from others while bringing nothing to the negotiating table itself.
"I'm actually more concerned about the U.S.'s transparency," said Jennifer Morgan, who heads the World Resources Institute's climate and energy program.
One leading U.S. analyst said every time countries make progress on an issue, the United States reminds countries that it might all mean nothing unless China agrees to transparency rules.
"The U.S. is the problem here," the analyst said. "Everybody is so pissed off. Here we are with nothing back home, and acting like bullies."
A 'non-aggression pact'?
On the surface, though, the mood is one of self-conscious diplomatic niceties. Gone are the finger-pointing and the insults that reached a fever pitch a few months when Chinese negotiator likened Stern's criticisms to a pig admiring itself in a mirror.
In fact, countries avoided even mentioning one another by name. China has studiously referred to America obliquely an Annex 1 country that is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol. Stern, meanwhile, recently noted that a proposal for a monitoring system has the support of small island nations, Latin American nations and least-developed countries -- but "not from everybody who matters yet." The holdout being, of course, China.
"There seems to be a secret non-aggression pact between the two. They seem to be much gentler with one another, and that's good," said Elliot Diringer, vice president of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
"This time we don't [point] fingers at each other," Huang agreed. "We don't want to criticize each other in public."
Meanwhile, ministers who arrived yesterday for a high-level plenary session emerged optimistic of a compromise between the United States and China.
"What I can tell you is, I think the Chinese delegation has shown flexibility since they arrived in Mexico, and we hope this would be reflected in the outcome," said Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's climate change ambassador.
Ramesh, India's envoy, agreed. "The Chinese are very constructive on the transparency issue. We have to work out the modalities." He also maintained that America's commitment to immediate funds often referred to as "fast start" is inadequate. Nations pledged $30 billion by 2020, and so far the United States has committed $1.7 billion -- an amount American officials consider to be serious cash on the table.
Ramesh, though, noted that $400 million of that is export credit, which he called "a very strange definition of fast-start finance." And, he said, it also includes $26 million of aid to India -- which India doesn't want. Early money for climate change, Ramesh said, should be given to Africa and the most vulnerable countries.
"We don't want to be counted in the fast-start category," he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who addressed the conference yesterday, said he believes "some decisions are ripe for adoption" including on deforestation, climate adaptation, technology and "some elements of finance."
Global climate change policy, he said, means balancing the need to provide for a populous earth with the necessity of cutting emissions to levels that will make it possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
"We need to fundamentally transform the global economy based on low-carbon clean energy resources," Ban said.