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On climate, it's Washington v. Beijing

The Major Economies Forum ends without achieving its goal for an agreement on global warming.

Two previous meetings of the MEF this year proved equally unsuccessful. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has already held two major negotiations at its Bonn, Germany headquarters this year without significant progress on key issues like reducing emissions from developing economies. A major U.N. summit in Poznan, Poland last December also fell short of its goals.

The last time Italy hosted the G8 summit, in 2001, then-U.S. President George W. Bush made headlines when he declared that his country — the world's largest polluter at that time — would not ratify the Kyoto treaty in part because it did not require large developing countries such as China and India to take on binding obligations. Bush said that if the U.S. signed on, it would find itself at a competitive disadvantage compared with fast-growing emerging economies that could develop without restriction.

Two years ago, China passed the U.S. to become the world's largest polluter; India is third on that list. Without including China, India and other large developing economies such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, any international plan to reduce worldwide emissions levels would be futile. But those countries argue that it is unfair to penalize their industrial development when richer nations were able to pollute unimpeded when their economies matured.

The result has evolved into a staring match between the two camps — with the world's two largest polluters both aware that the process cannot move forward without them. Each side refuses to take any short- or medium-term steps unless the other moves first.

The U.N. process has created a framework for a fund to help poor countries pay for efforts aimed at adapting to climate change. That — along with other efforts to bring environmentally friendly technologies to poor countries — is seen as a way to level the playing field by reducing the impact that addressing climate change would have on developing nations. But so far, those initiatives have mostly gone unfunded.

Most commentary about the process has tried to cast the divide as rich countries v. poor, or perhaps the north v. the south. But for good or bad, the fate of the massive climate change process depends on how differences between Washington and Beijing are resolved.

More on climate change:

Forecast: The global consequences of climate change

Climate negotiations stagnate at G8

An iceberg in the Seine is just the tip of the campaign