As the U.N. climate negotiations begin in Cancun, they are starting with something different: A Chinese government that is acknowledging its place in the world’s emissions race — first place.

Days before heading to Cancun, China’s top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, is on the record saying China is the number one emitter of greenhouse gases. He told reporters “we now stand number one in emissions volumes.”

This news is interesting because, for years, China has dodged the accusations that it had taken over the top spot from the United States. The company line had been that China needed to study the issue more and analyze emissions data more. Since 2006, international emissions monitors have said China is the top emitter with the United States as a close second.

But let’s not take China’s new forthrightness as a sign that the nation is doing a total change when it comes to climate policy. Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn reported last week that the nation has a clear balancing act to perform here in Cancun. “China heads into the two-week U.N.-led talks, saying it should not be forced to accept mandatory emission limits. Instead, it wants to maintain a clear line between the legally binding obligations of developing nations and rich countries that are historically responsible for climate change,” wrote Samuelsohn.

Still, the first part of fixing a problem is acknowledging there is a problem, right? So in some ways this step is somewhat important, but it may be the only step from China. And as we learned last year in Copenhagen, without China on board with the climate negotiations, it’s hard to get the United States on board. And without the world’s number one and two carbon emitters buying into these negotiations, it’s hard to clearly see what can be accomplished though the smog.

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