HONG KONG — The 187 countries meeting to discuss climate change in Bali, Indonesia, this month narrowly averted a total breakdown by agreeing to set 2009 as the deadline for a new treaty to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. For that deadline to be met, China and the United States will both need to agree to something they have resisted so far: binding commitments on emission reductions.

One of the most dramatic moments of the two-week conference came when former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, declared: “My country has been responsible for obstructing the process here in Bali, we know that. Over the next two years, the United States is going to be somewhere where it is not now. You must anticipate that.”

Much will depend on the next American president, to be elected late next year. In the meantime, the Bush administration continues to insist that before Washington will agree to big cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, emerging economies such as China and India, whose per capita emissions are a small fraction of the U.S.’s, must agree to such cuts.

This is putting the cart before the horse, as it was the U.S. and other developed countries that were responsible in the first place for producing the global-warming gases that have created the problem for the world. But while Europe is keen to put ambitious targets in place for 2020, the White House will not accept any numerical targets.

It may well be true that, as the U.S. says, cuts by developed countries alone will not solve the problem. However, as China has said, developed countries must take the lead in cutting emissions and assist developing countries in reducing emissions by offering them new technology and financial aid.

At least, there is now agreement in principle on such aid. Norway took the lead by committing to spend $500 million a year toward protecting forests in developing countries.

There is clearly a need for developed and developing countries to work together on climate change. After all, we are all in the same boat, which is going to sink unless all countries act together.

Thus the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is vital. Developed countries should take the lead in reducing emissions not only because they are the ones whose actions led to the current situation, but because they are in a better position to do so. But developing countries, such as China, must also limit their emissions because action by the developed countries alone will not be enough to save the planet.

Even though China has been adamant so far in rejecting binding numerical targets for itself, it has shown keen awareness of the problem and is putting in place national targets on energy efficiency.

When the U.S., presumably under a different president, is willing to act responsibly and accept emissions targets, there is little doubt that China will do the same although it will insist that consideration be given to its state of economic development and its relatively low per capita emission rate.

China is now aware that it cannot focus blindly on GDP growth because it is paying a huge environmental price for its development, with severe pollution of virtually all of its lakes and rivers. And climate change is already causing huge problems in the country.

The Xinhua news agency reported last week that a quarter of a million people in Guangdong Province alone face drinking water shortages because of a severe drought, and all three major Chinese rivers — Yangtze, Yellow and Zhujiang — are running low.

The Chinese position was well stated by its Foreign Ministry in the wake of the Bali accord: “We will continue to take an active part and play a constructive role in future negotiations. We hope that since the ‘roadmap’ has been prescribed, developed countries will continue to take the lead in emissions reduction beyond 2012, and provide financial, technological, adaptive and capacity-building assistance to developing countries to help them enhance their capability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

That is to say, as long as the developed countries provide financial and technological assistance, China and other developing countries will act to mitigate climate change.

Much depends on Washington and on the next American president. In a very real sense, therefore, Americans, when they vote next November, will be voting not just for the leader of their own country, but for the future of the whole world.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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