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These would need to be “measurable, reportable and verifiable” emissions cuts, Mr. Kerry said. “Frankly, that’s not hard to do, and China shouldn’t see that as a hurdle to arriving at an agreement.”

China is developing a long-range climate-change plan that bases its emissions cuts on raising energy efficiency, planting more forests and developing “clean-coal” technology, according to an interview with a top Chinese climate official in the state-run newspaper People’s Daily.

Mr. Kerry praised China for these moves and actions such as reforestation, increasing auto-emissions standards and building more public transportation, as well as shooting for high renewable-energy targets. He added that these actions could be measurable, reportable and verifiable and not lock China into the same kind of agreement developed countries might agree to in Copenhagen.

Mr. Stern said China deserves more credit than it has received so far in the U.S. for the steps it has already taken, but must do a lot more.

While the Chinese don’t need to make the same commitments as the developed countries, “they do need to take significant national actions that they commit to internationally, that they quantify, that can be verified and that are ambitious enough to be broadly consistent with what the science tells us,” he said.

Doing so will be critical to achieving a global agreement, he said, because developed countries committing to “strong actions won’t accept a world in which economic competitors are allowed to free-ride with respect to [carbon dioxide] emissions.”