LIMA, Peru -- Language the United States and China struck last month to iron out their decades-long dispute over which countries should act first to tackle climate change could serve as a model for the gridlocked international negotiations, China's top climate change official said yesterday.
In an interview with ClimateWire during a lull in stagnated negotiations here last night, National Development and Reform Commission Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua said the November announcement that saw President Obama pledge to slash U.S. emissions economywide by 2025 and President Xi Jinping declare that China will peak emissions by 2030 "reflects the differentiation between the countries."
Xie argued that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) -- which invokes a sense of fairness in allocating responsibility for preventing environmental degradation -- must be the central element of any new system.
But he did not insist that the sharp distinction that has existed for 20 years between developed and developing countries as a basis for who takes binding, quantifiable carbon-cutting action must remain intact.
"I think the joint announcement between China and the United States can be one of the possible templates," Xie said.
"It is fair to say CBDR is the base, and based on CBDR, we are taking a new agreement," he said. "CBDR is a must."
Xie's comments came during another long night of diplomatic talks aimed at crafting a new international agreement. The deal, expected to be signed in Paris next year, could see all countries taking unilateral action to curb greenhouse gas emissions after 2020.
The central debate this week is what type of information countries must provide when putting forward their targets early next year. While there are a number of specific fights, one issue looms over everything: how to now delineate what responsibility countries of varying level of wealth and creation of carbon pollution should take.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, addressing delegates yesterday, argued that if America and China can find common ground, the rest of the world can, as well.
"That is a historic milestone, and it should send a clear message to all of us that the roadblocks we've hit for decades can be removed from our path," Kerry said.
The U.S. announcement with China declares that both "are committed to reaching an ambitious 2015 agreement that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances." As part of that, the United States promised to cut economywide emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China vowed to peak emissions by 2030.
'Language can be found'
Two people who worked closely on the deal said the language surrounding CBDR was as deeply negotiated as the top-line emissions pledges.
U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said it shows the United States respects the development principle but wants to see it applied in a way that reflects the changing levels of countries' development and carbon emissions.
"Some are acting as if this basic principle of the convention is threatened with extinction. But this is in fact completely untrue," he said.
The United States has argued for a system in which no formula exists at all -- countries simply volunteer to cut emissions at whatever level they believe doable domestically.
"I would point out that the United States and China managed to find common ground," Stern said, adding, "Language can be found."
And yet while Xie's comments appeared to leave a door open to the U.S. vision of countries taking on what they can rather than allotting responsibility, the public comments of others in the delegation have made China's position unclear.
Chinese Foreign Minister Zhenmin Liu earlier this week held a hard line, saying, "The convention must be followed with the utmost sincerity" -- code in the U.N. talks for hands off the existing bifurcated system.
And speaking with a group of reporters yesterday, Chinese Special Representative for Climate Change Negotiations Gao Feng hewed closer to Xie's argument, emphasizing the overriding importance of CBDR but avoiding the buzzwords that have come to mean a desire to forevermore preserve the current system.
He questioned a proposal Brazil has put forward that would encourage countries' legal responsibilities to tackle climate change to evolve over time, saying, "How long does it take? How many years? Over half a century?"
Gao said he believes China, given its size and capacity, should do more and is doing so. But, he insisted, those who declare China a developed nation are wrong.
"I heard this kind of statement in 2000 when I was involved in climate change negotiations and China was much lower," he said, arguing that his country's per-capita gross domestic product is roughly equal to that of the climate conference host, Peru.
"Of course China is a developing country," he said. "It is very clear."