There are rumblings around Cancún that China may be willing to legally commit to its domestic cuts in carbon emissions.

Negotiators, ministers and world leaders are currently in the second week of talks at the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka COP 16).

Within that two-track negotiating process, countries are organized within different negotiating blocks (such as, say, the African Group, OPEC and the Alliance of Small Island States.)

But the most significant divide is between developed and developing countries.

Developed countries are those whose historic and current emissions have contributed to climate change. Developing countries are those whose economies have not yet grown to the point of having significant emissions — although those are the ones most often experiencing the impacts of climate change.

For its part, China occupies a unique position: It’s a developing country. But it’s also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Just this year, its emissions surpassed — by 1 percent — those of the United States.

But on Monday, China made some serious waves in Cancún.

According to a Dec. 6 Reuters story:

China has previously rejected making its domestic emissions goals legally binding, as they are for industrialized nations now.

“We can create a resolution and that resolution can be binding on China,” said Huang Huikang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s envoy for climate change talks.

“Under the (U.N. Climate) Convention, we can even have a legally binding decision. We can discuss the specific form. We can make our efforts a part of international efforts.”

“Our view is that to address these concerns, there’s no need to overturn the Kyoto Protocol and start all over again.”

According to that same story:

At a briefing later, China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua said that China’s targets could be brought under the Convention.

“Developing countries can voluntarily use their own national resources to make their own voluntary emissions commitments, and these commitments should be under the Convention.”

During a U.S. press briefing in Cancún on Tuesday, United States Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern played down the issue.

Answering questions about China, Stern was typically evasive and obfuscatory. “Look, I don’t have anything new to say: We’re seeking decisions,” he said, pointing out that the meetings in Cancún will not yield a legally binding agreement, but rather “decisions” that are “not legally binding, but they’re very important.”

He acknowledged that the U.S. has an “enormously important” and “cordial” relationship with China. Speaking of China’s climate envoy, he added, “I think we have a good relationship, but we don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues.”

Speaking at a separate press conference on Tuesday, Alden Meyer of the U.S.-based nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed hope that China’s move represents a genuine offer by China to put its emissions reductions into a legally binding agreement by the end of the week’s negotiations.

“My sense is it’s an attempt to show some flexibility,” he said, adding that China may be applying pressure on both the United States and Japan.

Currently, Japan is backing away from support for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and the United States — which never ratified the Kyoto Protocol — is unwilling to commit to reductions under what’s familiarly called the LCA. That’s the Ad Hoc Working Group for Long-Term Cooperative Action, and it’s a second track of negotiations geared toward developed countries who are not complying with Kyoto.

Of course, negotiations and meetings are still occurring behind closed doors and a final text won’t come out until the end of the week.

Although the entire situation remains vague, the importance of forward movement from China and its potential impact on the United States cannot be underestimated.

U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs, speaking via Skype to environmental journalists gathered in Brussels in October, said there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the climate change issue created by the U.S. that’s not going to be filled — unless someone else steps up.

“If China stood up, and said, ‘We can’t wait for the U.S.,’ that would be the kind of breakthrough that would work,” he said, adding that such action would finally raise the possibility that the world doesn’t work around the U.S. “Then the U.S. has to come back — that’s the best scenario we could hope for.”

Laura Paskus is an independent writer and editor who is reporting from Cancún as an Earth Journalism Network Climate Media Fellow.

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