U.N.'s Top Climate Change Official: A New Willingness to Tackle Emissions

His comments come after officials from the world's biggest economies met to discuss global warming.

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Major developing countries like China are doing far more to address climate change than most Americans realize, the top climate change official at the United Nations said yesterday after a meeting in Washington of ministers from the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

The two-day meeting, requested by President Obama, brought together officials from 16 of the world's major economic powers—the United States, the European Union, China, and India, among others—for a special, intimate round of negotiations as they work toward signing a new climate change treaty with the rest of the world by the end of the year.

Though the meeting itself yielded no real breakthroughs, observers say it indicated a new willingness between the United States and major developing countries to cooperate. In particular, it offered hints that the United States is making progress on what is arguably its top concern in international negotiations: making sure that China, India, and other major developing countries actually participate in the push for a new treaty by December.

Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s climate chief, called the meeting "very positive and constructive" and said it was "helped tremendously" by the support of Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "There was a recognition around the table that this is a global crisis that cannot be solved without a global response," de Boer said. "There is a universal recognition that the whole world needs to act on this."

Such words, however, seem to fly in the face of what many U.S. lawmakers are saying about the rest of the world. Last week, during a flurry of hearings on global warming legislation in the House, critics of Obama's efforts said they worried that China, India, and other major developing countries will not agree to control their emissions and warned that a U.S. cap on emissions will send jobs overseas.

Observers say there are signs that these concerns are outdated. "There is a disconnect," said de Boer. "In some countries, the fact that the Chinese are acting on climate change is hugely underappreciated."

China, he said, is now the largest investor worldwide in clean energy technology. "I think many people are not aware of that," he said. And according to a report by HSBC Global Research in February, almost 40 percent of the spending in China's economic stimulus package is supposed to go toward renewable energy, electric grid improvements, pollution control efforts, and other clean-energy-related projects.

And yet there is still a lot of uncertainty and disagreement among negotiators, particularly over the size of emissions cuts and how quickly China, the United States, and other countries will be willing to make them. Major developing countries say their decisions will be based on how far developed countries are willing to go to help them pay to lower their emissions.

These debates, which were largely skirted in this week's talks, will be taken up next month, when officials from the 16 countries reconvene in Paris to continue talking and negotiating as they prepare for Copenhagen, where world leaders will meet in December to formally hammer out a climate change deal.