12/07/2011 04:16 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2012

At Global Climate Talks, The U.S. and China Are Divided As Ever

The somewhat deflating reality surrounding the global climate talks in Durban, South Africa -- now hurtling toward another arguably empty conclusion -- is that success or failure is heavily contingent on the whims of just two countries: China and the United States.

The two nations, after all, produce far more climate-warming gases than their nearest competitors, and their mutual, steely-eyed refusal to budge from their bedrock negotiating positions tends to render even the most conciliatory gestures among lesser polluters both quaint and meaningless.

A quick tale of the tape: Looking at the energy sector, which is the chief source of greenhouse gas emissions, China produced some about 7.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually in 2009, according to numbers compiled by the Energy Information Administration. That edged out the United States, which pumped out about 5.4 million metric tons of CO2.

On a per capita basis, the U.S. wins, with an average of 17.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per person, compared to China's 5.8. But the larger point here is that, with global CO2 emissions hovering at around 30.3 million metric tons in 2009, the vast industrial warrens in United States and China are, taken together, responsible for over 43 percent of it.

If they don't see eye to eye in Durban -- or anywhere else that some 200 nations of the world might gather in coming years to worry about the warming climate under the auspices of the United Nations -- then a global climate pact will have little practical effect.

At the moment, China and the U.S. don't see eye to eye, and they aren't likely to anytime soon.

This is true despite China's having set the meetings in Durban atwitter earlier this week, by suggesting that it would be "willing to bear the obligations of a legally binding commitment" on carbon emissions after 2020. To many, this seemed an important shift in China's negotiating position, and perhaps a break from the position jointly held by the bloc of large, fast-developing nations known as BASIC -- a rough acronym derived from Brazil, South Africa, India and China.

The BASIC nations, along with the rest of what's officially considered the developing world, have long hewed to the notion that a fair climate treaty would bind only the United States, Europe and other rich, fully industrialized nations to mandatory emissions limits. Less well-heeled nations, the thinking goes, ought not be hampered by such restrictions and should take on only voluntary reductions as they are able.

The 20-year-old United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change followed this logic, and the world was eventually divided into so-called "Annex 1" nations (the rich), and "non-Annex 1" (everybody else). The Kyoto Protocol later codified emissions obligations along these lines, though the world's biggest emitter -- the U.S. -- never officially signed on to its strictures.

The protocol is set to expire at the end of next year, and no one is betting that the U.S. will sign on for any Kyoto 2.0. For starters, the U.S. regards China's "developing nation" status as a demonstrable misnomer in 2011, given that it now has the planet's second-largest economy and has become a chief competitor to American manufacturers. China and other fast-developing nations, American negotiators say, must be bound by emissions restrictions of their own, and any global climate pact going forward must include a clear path for all countries to eventually "graduate" into the club of carbon-constrained nations.

The stalemate in global climate negotiations has long sat on this divide, and so it was with a degree of cautious excitement that climate-action activists greeted the suggestion Monday by Xie Zhenhua, the deputy director of China's National Development and Reform Commission and the head of the Chinese delegation at Durban, that his country might eventually support a binding emissions agreement.

"If we're talking about an agreement that doesn't enter into force until 2020, well, you're too late," said Samantha Smith, the leader of the global climate and energy initiative at the environmental group WWF. "That said, an agreement entered into force in 2020 is still a big step, and China seemed to be opening up a space for other countries to respond."

Of course, as Smith and others acknowledged, China's olive branch came with several preconditions, including an extension of the Kyoto Protocol with new carbon-reduction commitments by rich nations and a "fast launch" for the Green Climate Fund, which was agreed to at a meeting in Cancun last year and would provide some $20 billion annually in financial assistance for poor nations adapting to climate change.

Given that these issues are themselves highly contentious at the Durban talks, the overture might well be seen as having been easier for China to extend than for others countries to accept. But the real nut of the Chinese delegate's statement was that it would consider a legally binding agreement "matched with China's economic development and capabilities based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities."

"Common but differentiated responsibilities" is essentially diplo-speak for the not unreasonable idea that the rich world plays a much bigger role in making a mess of the planet and ought to bear a greater share of the load for fixing it. This, of course, includes allowing poor nations to avoid hard emissions limits. That China sees itself as needing to cling to this caveat -- as far into the future as 2020 -- does not bode well for reconciling its position with that of the U.S., which opposes allowing China, India, Brazil or really any up-and-coming economic powerhouse to escape the yoke of emissions restrictions.

Todd Stern, the Obama administration's climate envoy, signaled as much back in April, in a speech at MIT:

The notion that the world should be indefinitely divided for climate change purposes into categories established in 1992 makes no sense. Look at some basic facts and figures.

Four countries classified as developing -- "non-Annex 1" in the lingo of the Framework Convention -- are now in the OECD. ...

More than 30 non-Annex 1 countries have higher per capita incomes today than 1/3 of Annex 1 countries did in 1992, and the richest 20 of these have incomes higher than a quarter of Annex 1 countries today. Indeed, four of the 10 richest countries in the world in per capita terms (and 17 of the top 50) are non-Annex 1.

As of 2009, four of the top 10 and 9 of the top 20 emitters of CO2 from fossil fuels were non-Annex 1.

To give a sense of what has changed since the 1992 categories were published, China's GDP is nearly 6 times larger than in 1992; its per capita GDP is more than 7 times larger; its CO2 emissions are nearly 4 times larger and its per capita CO2 emissions are 3 ½ times larger. What's more, China and other emerging market countries are growing by leaps and bounds, so five and ten years from now these numbers will be all the more striking.

In short, there is no conceptual justification for freezing, circa 1992, our expectations for country action; to indefinitely shield all countries that fell below a 1992 threshold, irrespective of how much they have grown and developed over time.

Given all this, it should have come as little surprise that Stern, on Tuesday, emerged from a closed-door session with his Chinese counterparts in Durban professing to have heard nothing new.

"Let me just say, it's not my impression that there is, that there has been any change at all in the Chinese position with respect to a legally binding agreement," Stern told reporters, "and I didn't understand Minister Xie to be contending that there's been any change in the position."

And so the world keeps warming.