China's greenhouse gas emissions have escalated in the past decade even as U.S. emissions have dropped, and that has fundamentally changed the balance of power in international negotiations over blame for climate change and who bears the most responsibility for trying to stop it.
When President Obama took office, the U.S. and other major emitters faced calls to establish a $100 billion restitution fund to compensate the rest of the world for problems stemming from climate change.
But with China now leading all countries in greenhouse gas pollution, the Obama administration has abandoned the restitution efforts and instead is demanding that emerging economies take more responsibility.
It's the latest twist in the decadeslong diplomacy over greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists argue are leading to a gradual warming of the planet, and turns on its head the popular notion that the U.S. and other developed economies caused the problem through decades of industrialization and now must compensate developing markets that have been harmed.
"The remarkable turnaround in the emissions balance does change the dynamics" of the climate change debate, said Paul Bledsoe, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
For one thing, U.S. officials and other countries are increasingly taking action outside the often-unproductive U.N. climate talks, and instead are using venues such as the Group of 20 summit, where China and other large emerging economies are treated as peers and expected to shoulder their share of the burden for change.
'Time warp' at the U.N.
China and other industrializing countries aren't giving up the fight.
At a recent U.N. climate change conference in Poland, emerging economies asked for compensation and insisted on freedom to develop their markets without the tight rules they want to have imposed on developed economies.
Those countries argue that the U.S., Europe and other rich economies were spewing carbon dioxide for decades before China built its first power plant, and thus are culpable for most of the cumulative gases in the atmosphere.
That, too, will change, according to a report compiled by the European Commission, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, and the research group Ecofys, which found that cumulative emissions from developing countries will rise from 48 percent of the total in 2010 to 51 percent by the end of the decade.
Todd Stern, the lead U.S. envoy at the conference, called China's long-standing "you-first" stance on curbing emissions astonishing in light of its overwhelming dominance of the climate change outlook.
"I feel that I'm going into a time warp," he told participants at the Poland meeting.
Mr. Stern made it clear that any thought of the U.S. contributing $100 billion a year to a fund for the developing world is fanciful.
"The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it," he said.
Mr. Bledsoe said the Obama administration has shifted global negotiations to a more pragmatic approach that enables each country to set goals for curbing its emissions rather than trying to enact a binding global treaty such as the defunct Kyoto Protocol.
But first, the U.S. had to "clear the deck of the annual $100 billion fallacy" — a task it seemed to accomplish at the Warsaw talks, he said.
The U.S. now seems inclined to provide, at most, a little aid to help the most struggling markets adapt to a changing climate while calling on China and other rapidly developing economies such as India and Brazil to do their share.
Cracking down on coal
It was seven years ago when China surpassed the U.S. to become the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases thought to cause climate change. Its annual output was 9.9 billion metric tons last year, nearly twice the 5.2 billion spewed by U.S. cars, power plants and other sources, according to the European Commission report.
The European study found that developing economies as a whole, led by China, have surpassed the emissions totals of the developed markets, with combined carbon emissions of about 19.2 billion metric tons last year compared with 13.4 billion in the industrialized world.
U.S. emissions have dropped to levels not seen since 1994 because of a massive switch from coal to natural gas by American power plants, made possible by the discovery of plentiful shale gas as well as more efficient use of energy by businesses and vehicles.
No other major nation has been able to boast such big curbs, and it enabled the administration this summer to win major concessions from other nations, such as getting China's agreement to pursue a phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons — the man-made chemicals used in old-model air conditioners and refrigerators that are considered "super greenhouse gases."
If other major emerging markets such as India can be persuaded, Mr. Bledsoe said, phasing out hydrofluorocarbons could reduce warming by half a degree Celsius.
At home, Mr. Obama is cracking down on emissions from coal-fired power plants and plans to impose stricter fuel efficiency requirements on cars, which should ensure that the decline in U.S, emissions continues.
The administration also has stepped up its "war on coal" with an eye on China, India and other emerging economies that have been increasing the use of coal to generate power. It is doing what it can to prevent the export of the America's bountiful coal supplies to developing nations, where it could contribute to their growth in carbon emissions.
China has been moving aggressively to try to at least appear to be curbing its emissions.
Besides signing the hydrofluorocarbon agreement with the U.S., officials in Beijing are considering closing their dirtiest coal-fired power plants and have launched a pilot carbon emissions trading project in the southern city of Shenzhen and six other regions.
Coal plants also pose health problems in China, where an estimated 1 million people die prematurely each year from breathing dirty air.
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