What must not happen when world leaders meet in Paris, at the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change, is a repeat of what has gone before. In 2001, the US, then the world’s largest polluter, failed to ratify the legally binding emissions targets laid out years earlier in the Kyoto Protocol – all but invalidating the agreement. Move to 2009 and the Copenhagen climate summit collapsed in disarray, while in Warsaw last year, China and a bloc of 132 countries simply walked out.
In all cases, failure was in large part determined by a lack of co-operation between richer and poorer countries. So it is a cause for celebration that America and China are engaging in ambitious talks aimed at smoothing over differences before the Paris conference begins.
Without leadership from these two nations – who emit almost as much CO2 as the rest of the world combined – progress will once more be stymied. Getting started early is also positive. It was, in previous rounds, a failure to prepare the groundwork that saw delegates leave with so little achieved. That is not to underestimate the task at hand. As the EU and US together cut emissions of CO2 by 60 million tonnes last year, China’s rose by 500 million, and are predicted to rise for at least the next 20 years. Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, must strike a delicate balance: he should take advantage of signs that the Chinese are willing to consider a total emissions cap, and push hard for one. That would bring China into line with Europe and other developed nations.
At the same time, Chinese negotiators are right to point out an injustice in their being forced to curtail economic development in pursuit of clean energy– when developed nations polluted merrily during their industrialising heyday. The call from China for rich nations to cut CO2 emissions by 40 per cent compared with 1990 in the next six years may be unrealistic (given that the US target is currently four per cent), but Mr Stern should make it clear that the US recognises its historic pollution, and is prepared to pay accordingly.