The head of the Chinese delegation at U.N. climate talks in South Africa has signaled the country is willing to accept a legally binding agreement to cut emissions. While a deal would not come until after 2020, many at the conference hope China's move will influence other major polluters and developing nations.
The European Union has been urging other governments at the U.N. climate conference, known as COP17, to adopt legally binding mandates to cut carbon emissions blamed for global climate change.
The EU commissioner for climate change, Connie Hedegaard, said the European delegation would discuss the effort with the world's biggest polluter - China.
“China has always been in favor of a legally binding outcome, and that is the key question to China - that is - will a legally binding deal mean that China is also equally legally bound,” said Hedegaard.
The head of the Chinese delegation, Xie Zhenhua, answered this question by saying China would agree to a deal if certain preconditions were met.
They include that the European Union agree to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, which requires nations to cut carbon emissions, and that the terms of a legal deal would differentiate based on each country's “national capability.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Xie also said governments should first fulfill the reduction pledges they made at the last two climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun before considering a legally binding deal, no sooner than 2020.
As the Chinese delegation briefed reporters on the ground floor of Durban's International Conference Center, upstairs, the leaders of civil society groups led a news conference outlining their complaints about the U.S. position at the talks.
The United States, which is the second-largest polluter behind China, is opposed to legally binding mandates to cut emissions, and has said the current emission reduction targets do not need to be reconsidered until 2020.
Some members of the panel suggested that China's willingness to agree to a legal framework to cut emissions could help motivate other countries.
Kumi Naidoo is the executive director of Greenpeace International.
“I think that China and the U.S. need to actually have a conversation here on the ground and maybe, in fact, it's not a conversation that happens between negotiators, but maybe it's Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama talking at a senior level, because don't forget that the theater is not simply here of the struggle, it's happening in the capitals back home,” said Naidoo.
China and the United States have actually outlined similar policies here at COP17. They have both called on countries to meet targets set at the previous conference before discussing further action. China says it has set a target to cut emissions by 17 percent in the next five years, while the United States has committed to cut the same amount by 2020.
But the United States has been accused of holding up progress at the talks, while China's policy has been warmly welcomed.
Harjeet Singh, "climate justice coordinator" for the group ActionAid, says the difference is that compared to the United States, China has a much more ambitious climate policy.
“They have put some very strong stringent laws in place, they are making sure that their industries are much much less polluting," said Singh. "Look at the investments that they've made in green technology and all this is happening when China is not under any legally binding agreement, and it has done a lot on its own.”
Despite China's efforts, a new report from the Global Carbon Project, a group of scientists linked to Britain's University of East Anglia, says emerging economies, including China, have contributed to the biggest yearly increase in carbon emissions on record.
The report, published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, says carbon dioxide emissions rose by 5.9 percent worldwide in 2010, despite a brief dip in air pollution during the global financial crisis.
According to the report, China's emissions alone rose by 10.4 percent.