China, U.S. relationship key in climate agreement

Even as smog levels in Beijing often turn the sky a smoky gray, one thing was clear at the global climate change talks in Paris: China, once a laggard, emerged as a key player in the battle to help avert the worst effects of global warming.

The shift, by the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, helped pave the way for the commitment by nearly 200 nations to reduce emissions. “You had a developing country and somebody who had been leading the efforts against us,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry, “that opened the door.”

After the December 2009 Copenhagen climate talks descended into chaos, some of the sharpest finger-pointing had been directed at China.

Beijing didn’t send Premier Wen Jiabao to the final discussions that time, leaving leaders including President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to negotiate with an official who frequently left the room to phone his superiors. The Chinese pushed to remove specific targets on emissions cuts — even those that would apply only to advanced industrialized countries and not itself.

“China wrecked the talks … and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame,” British environmental author Mark Lynas, who was with one of the national delegations, wrote in a fly-on-the-wall account.

What a difference six years makes: Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared side by side at the start of this year’s Paris climate change talks. And on Saturday, as global leaders congratulated themselves on reaching an agreement, the U.S. was singling out China for praise for its constructive engagement.

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