COPENHAGEN, Denmark - The United States and China took steps Thursday toward a broad agreement that could be sealed by President Barack Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao when they arrive at the flagging U.N. climate talks.
Fresh off a plane from Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the U.S. would join others in raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations cope with global warming.
That's a "good first step," China's vice foreign minister, He Yafei, said later.
European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the move gave the talks "political momentum." Yoshiko Kijima, a senior Japanese negotiator, said Obama had sent a strong signal "that he will persuade his own people that we need to show something to developing countries. I really respect that."
Clinton made the offer contingent on reaching a broader agreement at the 193-nation conference that covers "transparency," a reference to U.S. insistence that China allow some international review of its actions controlling emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Going some way to meet U.S. demands, the Chinese official told reporters that Beijing was ready for "dialogue and co-operation" on its emissions actions "that is not intrusive, that does not infringe on China's sovereignty."
The diplomatic duel between Washington and Beijing has marked the two weeks of climate talks, which ground to a near-halt Wednesday as a chronic rich-poor divide flared into the open again, dimming the hopes of the Danish hosts for a comprehensive deal - a preliminary framework for a formal treaty next year on combating climate change.
Environment ministers, having taken over from lower-level negotiators, got down to the final hours of talks Thursday in hopes of producing partial agreements to put before Obama, Wen and more than 110 other leaders at Friday's summit.
Such accords might include the issues raised by Clinton at a news conference here: long-term goals for financing climate aid and monitoring of emissions controls.
The Clinton offer represented the first time the U.S. government has publicly cited a figure in discussions here over long-term financing to help poorer countries build sea walls against rising oceans, cope with unusual drought and deal with other impacts of climate change, while also financing renewable-energy and similar projects.
The $100 billion, a number first suggested by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, falls short of what experts say would be needed. The World Bank and others estimate the long-term climate costs for poorer nations, from 2020 or so, would likely total hundreds of billions of dollars a year. China and other developing countries say the target should be in the range of $350 billion.
Although the initial Chinese reaction to Clinton's announcement was somewhat positive, a leading Bangladeshi delegate felt otherwise. "This is inadequate," said Quamrul Islam Chowdhury. "We are looking for around $600 billion."
In addition, the developing nations want long-term financial support based on stable revenue sources, such as an aviation tax that might be the goal of future international climate talks.
"It's good there's now been a statement of support for a clear number on long-term finance," U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer said of the U.S. offer. "This discussion will have to take place with other parties, whether they feel that sum is adequate."
More immediately, the conference has been discussing a short-term climate fund to help developing countries - a $10 billion-a-year, three-year program. European Union leaders last week committed to supplying $3.6 billion a year through 2012. On Wednesday, Japan, seeking to "contribute to the success" of Copenhagen, announced it would kick in $5 billion a year for three years.
U.S. funding is hovering at only around $1 billion this year, and Clinton, when asked, did not specify how much Washington would contribute to the "fast start" package.
"We'll do our proportion of 'fast start'," the secretary of state said.
De Boer commented afterward, "I'm keenly looking forward to hearing what the U.S. contribution to that fund will be."
The "transparency" issue relates to recent pledges by such major developing countries as China, India and Brazil to rein in the growth of their emissions by specific amounts - on a voluntary basis.
Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, 37 industrialized nations that must cut their emissions - not including the U.S., which rejects Kyoto - are required to file detailed reports to the U.N., where they are subject to review.
China and other developing nations were not required to reduce emissions under Kyoto or file regular greenhouse-gas "inventories." Now that they have pledged voluntary controls, the United States wants their emissions actions to be "measurable, reportable and verifiable," in U.N. terminology.
The Chinese had resisted what they see as a potential intrusion on their sovereignty. But without that, Clinton told reporters, "there will not be the kind of concerted global action that we so desperately need."
The issue is particularly sensitive in the U.S. Congress, where members want to ensure China is living up to its own internal commitments. "It's essential for the global effort, but their internal efforts as well," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in Copenhagen.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he had discussed the issue with Chinese officials Wednesday and progress was being made. Conference observer Jake Schmidt, of the New York-based Natural Resources Defence Council, suggested the Chinese might satisfy their critics by submitting yearly reports, with more detail.
China's seeming willingness to enhance the verifiability of its actions was "a clear shift in their position," said Srinivas Krishnaswamy of Greenpeace.
The monitoring problem "is a big one because we don't know what we're counting," said Melinda Kimball, senior vice-president of the U.N. Foundation and a former top U.S. climate negotiator. "It reminds me of arms control."
In China, so many new coal-fired plants are being built that it is difficult for international energy experts to figure out the precise carbon dioxide output.
Experts' estimates of carbon dioxide emissions are based on fuel going into power plants and complex formulas based on power plant efficiency. But those estimates are also dependent on reliable information about fuel and efficiency; they could be skewed by inaccurate input.
The detailed talks on a range of issues - from emissions commitments, to preventing deforestation, to transferring clean-energy technology - reached an impasse Wednesday when developing nations objected to the process that produced a core draft document.
In a reprise of a perennial complaint at the annual conferences, the poorer nations said they were being excluded from the drafting of the text, that wealthier nations' views were being imposed on the developing world.
The European Union expressed concern over "the lack of progress in the negotiations."
The U.S. came under renewed pressure to improve its pledge of greenhouse-gas emission cutbacks - by about 17 per cent by 2020, compared with 2005 figures. That's only a 3 per cent to 4 per cent reduction from 1990, the benchmark year for the Kyoto countries and the basis for the EU's pledge to cut emissions by at least 20 per cent by 2020.
"I have to be honest, an offer by the United States to cut only 4 per cent from 1990 levels is not ambitious enough," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before arriving in Copenhagen.
One expert analysis of industrialized countries' current pledges on emissions in 2020 find that in aggregate they amount to 8 per cent to 12 per cent below 1990 levels, far below the 25 per cent to 40 per cent recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. scientific network.
Climate Action Network International, the coalition of environmental groups at the conference, estimate that emissions path would raise global temperatures about 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) by midcentury, well beyond what scientists say is a 2-degree C (3.6-degree F) threshold for seriously damaging climate change.