China, cast as the wrecker of UN climate negotiations last year, went some way towards rehabilitation at Cancún summit today, amid reports it was prepared to compromise on a core US demand.
In an apparent effort to make up for last year's debacle at Copenhagen – where China fired up developing countries into opposing a deal and delivering diplomatic snubs to Barack Obama – officials this time have opted for a constructive, low-key approach, say negotiators and observers.
"There is more camaraderie here than I saw in Copenhagen. I see more dialogue and much more intense engagement between the US and China and less shadow boxing," said India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. "China has moved."
Some reports have even suggested that China, now the biggest producer of greenhouse gases, was prepared to adopt legally binding emissions targets and subject its voluntary C02 reductions to international monitoring and verification.
"It's a huge step in the right direction," said Fred Boltz of Conservation International. Jennifer Morgan, an analyst for the World Resource Institute, immediately hailed the move as a "game changer".
The US climate change envoy, Todd Stern, has said repeatedly that America will not support emerging deals on climate aid and technology transfer, or preventing deforestation unless there is also progress on its prime demand of verification.
For China, as for the other emerging economic powers like India and Brazil, the issue of international verification of their efforts to reduce emissions is very sensitive. But the Chinese climate change envoy, Xie Zhenhua, did not list the issue as a deal breaker at a press conference.
Ramesh, who has put forward his own proposal for verification, said he spent four hours with the Chinese delegation at the weekend. After Copenhagen, he thought China would be wary of being cast as the wrecker once more. "They know the world's radar is on them," he said. "China doesn't want to be blamed. If China is the only party holding out they will come on board."
Even before the signs of Chinese movement, negotiators and observers had been remarking on the relative ease of the Cancún talks – in stark contrast to last year's fraught exchanges between US and Chinese officials at Copenhagen.
Jennifer Haverkamp of the Environmental Defence Fund suggested the low-key approach was reflective of the stakes in Mexico – negotiators conceded months ago they would unable to reach a full-scale treaty, and were only hoping to move the process along.
"I think that with the low level of ambition there seems to be a desire on both sides – China and the US – not to be blamed for not working hard to find a modest outcome," she said. "You just don't see, and hopefully won't see, the kind of back and forth you saw at Copenhagen. Both are trying to appear constructively engaged."
Xie agreed. "We see the atmosphere is relatively mild," he told a press conference, "although we don't see much progress."
China has also spent much of the last year trying to rehabilitate its image. As the high level talks got underway in the main resort complex, Chinese officials appeared at a side event hosted by the Climate Group to promote their domestic initiatives to reduce emissions.
China was already half way to its goal of cutting carbon intensity by two-fifths to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020, said Junfeng Li, the deputy director of the Energy Research Institute. The country had also reached renewable energy targets. Both goals are independent of the outcome of the UN climate negotiations.
China is due to incorporate its environmental targets into its 12th five-year plan to be adopted by National People's Congress in March.
Xie told reporters that the process would make such voluntary targets legally binding. "Once we have made the plan we are going to have the approval from the National People's Congress. That means we will have binding targets," he said. "You can be assured that our voluntary emissions reductions targets will be honored and will be implemented."