Canada's combative new Environment Minister, John Baird, paraded his undiplomatic nature at the Cancun summit on Wednesday, directly challenging China over its demand that it should bear less onerous commitments than developed countries in a proposed climate deal.
Mr. Baird's antagonistic approach was in sharp contrast to U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern, who, while encouraging China to do more on climate change, took pains to recognize the significant steps the Asian powerhouse has already made in slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.
With two days left for the talks, developed and developing countries were making some progress but remained far apart on key issues. Those include the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the level of commitment required by developing countries, and the financial and technology transfers that the rich world will make to poorer nations to help them reduce emissions and cope with devastating climate-change impacts.
Countries hope to conclude "building block" agreements that will form the basis of a comprehensive and binding treaty to be concluded next year in South Africa.
Mexican officials established a 50- country working group to try to break the logjam.
Wednesday night, Mexico's chief negotiator, Luis Alfonso de Alba, said countries will likely have to forgo the effort to secure new commitments under Kyoto until future talks.
The negotiators were struggling over how to reconcile Kyoto's principles with the political agreement reached in Copenhagen, which is strongly backed by the U.S. and Canada.
Canada has emerged as one of the most hard-line negotiators, as one of three Kyoto signatories that is unwilling to commit to new obligations under the treaty that is cherished by the developing world, and in making tough demands of the major emerging economies like China and India.
Mr. Baird, who is also the Conservative House Leader, has a reputation for aggressive partisanship in Ottawa, and has brought some of that chippiness with him to Cancun. His approach differs sharply from that of the lawyerly Jim Prentice, whom he replaced as environment minister just a month ago.
He appears unswayed by China's argument – which is backed by the European Union and other developing countries – that developed nations like Canada must cut emissions deeply in order to allow poorer nations like China to lift their people out of poverty through economic growth.
Many of Canada's positions are consistent with those of the United States: that the emission targets of developing countries be covered by a new treaty, and that they be subject to international monitoring and verification. And Japan has been even more adamant that it will not take on new obligations under Kyoto unless major developing countries make legally binding commitments.
But Mr. Stern said Wednesday that he had "enormous respect for what China is doing domestically" to slow the growth of emissions.
"We know that China is doing a great deal . . but China is a powerhouse economy and its emissions profile is worrying," he said, adding he did not mean it as a criticism but merely a statement of fact.
At a news conference on his first full day at the conference, Mr. Baird suggested that only the 37 developed countries that had committed to the Kyoto treaty were addressing climate change, ignoring the fact that China and India have both produced voluntary plans to reduce emissions growth as required by the 1997 treaty. With China's $8-trillion (U.S.) in foreign reserves, it could afford to do more, the minister said.
"The No. 1 focus here should be reducing global emissions and you can't reduce emissions if you only have 37 countries out of 193 taking action," he said. "Anyone who says that you can is wrong. The science says it is wrong, the atmosphere – the planet will tell you it wrong."
The minister noted that emissions have plateaued in the developed world – at least in the past two years of recession – and dropped by 2 per cent in Canada in 2009 while climbing by 8 per cent in China.
"If it's two steps forward in Canada but eight steps back in China, that doesn't deliver the goods in the fight against climate change, that doesn't deliver the goods for the environment, it doesn't deliver the goods for the world."
He also took on China's insistence that it should face less onerous reporting and verification standards than the developed world. "I just don't know what the argument is among major emitters for two-tier reporting structures. And if you are going to report, why can't you verify? It's just common sense."
But China's top negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, told the conference that his country remains a developing nation, with a per-person income at a fraction of that in the developed world. And he said rich countries have an obligation – recognized in the Kyoto Protocol – to address historic disparities. Still, he added, China will reduce the emission intensity of its economy – or greenhouse gases produced per dollar of production – by up to 45 per cent within 10 years, and stabilize emissions "as early as possible."
And he said Kyoto must form the basis for any future treaty, with a parallel track for the United States.
Mr. Xie urged all developed countries to meet their original commitments under the treaty; Canada has acknowledged it will not make its target to reduce emissions by 6 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012, though Mr. Baird on Wednesday blamed that on the inaction of the former Liberal government.
The Chinese negotiator also exhorted countries to make new Kyoto commitments, something only Japan, Russia and Canada have refused to do.
Liberal environment critic Gerard Kennedy called Mr. Baird's attack "amateurish and damaging."