BEIJING | U.S. officials were due in China on Sunday to try to narrow differences between the world's top carbon emitters in advance of December's climate-change summit in Copenhagen.
The gap is large at the moment.
China, in a document recently delivered to the United Nations, called on developed nations to cut emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Legislation currently making its way through the U.S. Congress pledges a 17 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels. The European Union has promised reductions of 20 percent below 1990 levels or 30 percent if more developed countries sign on.
Indications in Beijing suggest China might be flexible as long as the U.S. pledges to make deeper cuts, but that has not yet happened.
Chief U.S. climate-change negotiator Todd Stern, who is leading the team visiting China this weekend, is hopeful of narrowing the gap.
No global deal "will be possible if we don't find a way forward with China," Mr. Stern told a packed audience at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, on Wednesday.
During the trip, Mr. Stern said, he hopes to "deepen the dialogue we've started with China" and "drill down deeper and start talking about areas of cooperation" such as building efficiency, electric vehicles and carbon capture.
Leading Chinese climate-change strategist professor Pan Jiahua of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said he didn't think the Chinese position of a 40 percent cut was "radical" and that developed countries need to take the lead to give the rest of the world confidence in making their own commitments to cut emissions.
"The U.S. could do a bit more than you would imagine," Mr. Pan said. "Energy efficiency [in the U.S.] is not the highest in the world, building efficiency and car efficiency is low. The transport system is based on the individual. A change of lifestyle is needed. If you don't have strong signals, people won't take action."
Zeng Shaojun, secretary-general of the China New Energy Chamber of Commerce, said he was "very surprised" that China had set the bar so high.
"I have communicated with China's climate-change officials frequently, but this was the first time I'd heard of the 40 percent goal," he said.
China has made it clear that it will not accept mandatory carbon emissions cuts. Instead, it says it will follow the path set out by 2007 Bali climate talks that allow developing countries to make nonbinding cuts through what are called "nationally appropriate mitigation actions."
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said during a visit to China late last month that the United States would do what it can to help China cut emissions.
"China is not the same type of developing nation that it was 10 years ago, and it's certainly not the same type of developing nation like other countries in Southeast Asia or Africa," Mr. Kerry said. "A country with $2 trillion in currency reserves doesn't fit into that category."
The key to a deal at Copenhagen, Mr. Kerry said, would be to define each country's responsibilities in a way that would allow China to cut greenhouse gas emissions without being subjected to mandatory reductions for the short term.
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."