While the U.S. and China have long been blamed for slowing progress toward a global treaty to slow global warming, Beijing is showing signs of softening its stance. Together the two countries produce about half of the world's harmful emissions.
Nearly 190 nations entered final-hour talks Thursday on the Indonesian island of Bali, hoping to launch negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But European nations threatened to boycott U.S.-led climate talks next month unless Washington accepts a range of numbers for negotiating deep reductions of global-warming emissions at the U.N. conference.
China, on the other hand, is showing signs of changing its hard-line stand against targets.
Yu Jie works in Beijing for the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a green advocacy group. She said the change with China started at home. First Chinese scientists became concerned about the potential impact of climate change on agriculture and other fragile resources.
Yu said China's energy demand is growing even faster than its economy — and that simply can't be sustained.
"If you don't have sufficient energy resources to use, how do you sustain your development? So it's both on an environment and development agenda," she said.
Those realizations have led to ambitious goals for energy efficiency within China, including automobile emission standards that are stricter than the U.S. standard being considered for the year 2020.
Yu said that new attitude about climate change is now showing up at the bargaining table. The Chinese delegation in Bali no longer is just being defensive in climate talks; it is actually bringing proposals to the table.
The proposals won't necessarily resolve the conflict between the developed and developing world, but at least they start a new conversation. Jennifer Morgan is from the Berlin office of E3G, a nonprofit group that is trying to foster clean-energy deals between Europe and China.
"I think I could say China has been the most active in a positive sense here," Morgan said.
They have come with written proposals saying they are ready to control their emissions in a verifiable way.
As long as China is not willing to talk about capping its emissions, the United States says it won't talk about it, either. But Morgan said China is less insistent about a binding commitment than it was even a year ago.
"They have said informally they know that this will come. But they're not ready for it in the next commitment period, which starts in 2013," she said.
What China really needs, Morgan said, is ready access to technologies that can help their economy grow while keeping their emissions down. That has all sorts of implications for trade policy with the industrial north. Clearly, China will be attempting to further its own interests, too.
"They'll be tough negotiators, don't get me wrong," Morgan said. "They'll be looking for finance and technology, and they'll be looking for a signal from the North that they're ready to move. But China has said it's an historical moment. And they've put something on the table, and we'll see if developed countries can respond."
With additional reporting from The Associated Press