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US-China alliance helps push climate agreement

PARIS/BEIJING -- Cooperation between the U.S. and China in the fight against climate change helped galvanize the world's nations at talks in Paris last week, complementing energetic French diplomacy to create a historic framework to combat global warming in 2020 and beyond.

An unlikely alliance

The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, drew to a belated but successful close Saturday.

     Negotiations toward a Paris agreement took on new momentum in late September, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met in Washington. The two leaders, who represent the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters, promised in a joint statement to "work together and with others toward an ambitious, successful" outcome at COP21. It also was announced that China would introduce an industrial emissions trading system in 2017 and set aside 20 billion yuan ($3.12 billion at the time) to support developing nations' efforts to fight climate change.

     The measures signaled a major shift in Beijing's attitude toward the environment, particularly compared with 2009's COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Chinese delegates then refused to accept demands that the country cut its emissions, claiming developing-nation status. The move scuttled attempts to seal a meaningful climate deal at the conference, earning China harsh criticism worldwide.

     Despite China's dawn as the world's second-largest economic power, friction with neighbors has left the country relatively isolated on the global stage. Beijing's recent alignment with the U.S. on combating climate change is likely intended to show a willingness to cooperate internationally.

Piece by piece

Obama has long called for measures to fight global warming. China's new eagerness put negotiators from leading parties in harmony, making for highly agreeable talks, a European Union delegate said. EU leaders also had sought to pull in developing nations, forging agreements with African leaders in mid-November to cooperate on efforts against climate change.

     France, the host of the talks, worked in the background to hold promises in place. President Francois Hollande in early November flew to China, extracting Xi's support for having parties to the Paris agreement evaluate their progress every five years. The French leader met with Obama in Washington later in the month, where the two affirmed the goal of reaching a broad agreement at COP21.

     The conference began Nov. 30, with leaders from around 150 nations gathered in Paris. Obama in his opening speech noted the terror attacks there 17 days prior to the meeting, calling on those assembled to address the issues of both terrorism and climate change.

     Yet initial working-level talks stalled as countries sought to protect their interests. India criticized early versions of the agreement as failing to clearly delineate the responsibilities of developed and developing nations. Members of both camps took issue with language on financial support for emissions reduction, long-term targets and other matters. Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister and chair of the meeting, urged the parties to show solidarity.

Last-minute rush

A breakthrough came Friday, when the conference originally was scheduled to end. Obama and Xi in a telephone conversation reaffirmed their commitment to reaching an agreement, setting an example for other delegations.

     More direct concerns also were pushing China's delegates toward an agreement. Authorities in Beijing last week issued the first-ever red alert for air pollution amid some of the worst smog on record. Residents called the phenomenon a result of Chinese policy favoring high-speed growth over environmental safety.

     Discussions in Paris were extended by a day, and delegates launched into vigorous private talks. Fabius led the push for a final draft agreement, rushing from place to place to propose wording changes.

     Fabius delivered a complete draft to the floor shortly before noon Saturday, receiving a rare round of applause for his efforts. By 7:26 p.m., the most comprehensive climate agreement ever formed was adopted, and the long conference brought to an end.

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