Since the Copenhagen climate conference delivered a tepid political statement about combating climate change, the United States has tried to argue that it has all it wants out of an international accord. That is to say, very light on international systems to set and enforce obligations. The US claims this is largely a matter of equity – as long as competitors like China don’t have parallel obligations, it would be unfair to take on more binding commitments.
The US position has been the equivalent of a trump card, as freedom from binding targets has been an article of faith for developing countries for 20 years. This left America feeling comfortable that it and China are confreres in their desire to avoid targets.
Now in Durban, the Chinese government has been floating an informal proposal that would involve them potentially taking on targets within a decade. The conditions for agreeing to this would include a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in the interim, and a review of its implementation.
After US vilification of China on climate for nearly fifteen years, it may well be that the shoe will shortly be on the other foot. The US continues pushing off climate action largely because influential political groups basically don’t believe in undertaking any. Meanwhile China is showing signs of using the same period preparing to take obligations, possibly emerging the more ambitious of the two. We’ll see how this evolves in Durban and beyond.