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Women wear respiratory protection as a heavy smog hangs over the Forbidden City earlier this month in Beijing.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, will meet on the opening day of the United Nations climate summit in Paris on Monday to press the global community for a sweeping climate-change accord that would limit carbon emissions into the atmosphere and provide massive financial assistance to the most vulnerable Third World countries.

About 195 countries will gather in the French capital for two weeks in pursuit of an agreement to accelerate the global transition to a low-carbon economy – looking to usher in a world of greater energy efficiency, reliance primarily on renewable energy and other low-carbon sources rather than fossil fuels, and widespread adoption of technology to capture carbon dioxide from industrial processes and store the climate-changing gases underground.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is touting the Paris meeting as an opportunity to refurbish Canada's battered image on climate change. As nearly 150 leaders speak to the opening session on Monday, Mr. Trudeau will be joined by a cadre of provincial premiers and will use his three-minute statement to highlight the country's determination to put a price on carbon emissions and drive innovation in the production and consumption of energy.

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If successful, the UN summit could mark a major turning point for the global economy, and send a clear signal that Canada cannot rely on high-cost, carbon-intensive energy resources to drive its prosperity in the medium-to-longer term.

While there are still contentious issues that could undermine the result, the bilateral session with Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi on the opening day – and their joint commitment on addressing climate change announced earlier this year – will provide important momentum for a successful conclusion, said Scott Vaughan, the Ottawa-based president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a former federal environment commissioner.

China is the world's largest greenhouse-gas emitter, while the United States is No. 2.

"It's huge – it's really a big deal" that Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi will kick off the conference with a joint push, Mr. Vaughan said. For years, the two superpowers were at loggerheads on climate, with China insisting that it should be treated as a developing country with no mitigation commitments and the Americans – joined by Canada – demanding that it set targets for emission reductions. Now, China has pledged to invest heavily in renewable energy and cap emissions some time around 2030, though it has no firm target.

Mr. Obama, who has described climate change as a "clear and present danger" to the U.S. security and economy, is also scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India will contribute more than any other country to the rise in energy demand over the next 25 years, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said in a forecast on Friday. Coal will account for much of that increase, but Mr. Modi's government has pledged to the UN conference that non-fossil sources – nuclear and renewables – will provide more than half of the growth.

Critical to a successful Paris deal is the prominence of the pledge to keep global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. Based on more than 170 national commitments submitted to the UN, the world is falling well short of the action needed to achieve that goal. The United States, Canada and the European Union are pushing for a five-year review when countries would assess progress and provide more ambitious policies.

"Success at Paris means there's going to be an absolutely clear, unambiguous signal that the global economy is moving towards a process of decarbonization," Mr. Vaughan said. In broad strokes, such a decades-long effort would involve virtually eliminating the use of fossil fuels – especially coal, but also natural gas – for power generation and then transforming the transportation system, including public transit but especially cars and trucks, to run on that cleaner electricity.

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An ambitious Paris accord would also provide the framework for greater action in Canada. Mr. Trudeau and the premiers will meet 90 days after the meeting to conclude a national climate strategy that will link the various provincial efforts and establish a federal emissions target.

Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said on Friday that the target set by the previous Conservative government – a 30-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 – will serve as a floor, but it will require greater action than is currently planned from Ottawa, the provinces, cities and the business community to meet it, let alone significantly improve on it.

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