Climate Change

Post-Paris climate: the ‘historic’ Agreement

The absence of the term ‘carbon space’ in the Paris Agreement is a reason to worry as this will hurt India in the long run

By Chandra Bhushan
Last Updated: Friday 18 December 2015

Climate justice means climate change should not lead to further inequality in the world (Photo: United Nations/Flickr)

The world has given its assent to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Countries used words such as “strong”, “durable”, “dynamic” to describe the agreement. India hailed the adoption as a “historic day” that promised a “better future” and created a “chapter of hope” in the lives of seven billion people, also claiming the Agreement as an “important achievement” for India.

In this euphoric moment, I find myself in a very difficult position. I was in Paris, too. What I saw was wheeling-dealing and horse-trading. I have read the fine print of this deal. And I find it extremely difficult to express the same sentiments as the majority.

'Historic' Agreement

Paris is a “historic” agreement. No doubt. For the first time, all countries have taken on mitigation targets—earlier, that was the main responsibility of developed countries. But the Paris Agreement is also “historic” for something else people are finding inconvenient to talk about:

  • The Paris Agreement, finally, erases the “historical responsibility” of developed countries for causing climate change. Post Paris, developed countries are no longer required to cut emissions drastically and vacate the carbon space. In fact, this agreement allows developed countries to continue to occupy more “carbon space” in the future.
  • Paris Agreement also removes all liability of developed countries for the loss and damage suffered by the poor of the world due to climate change.

 The Paris Agreement, therefore, is monumental. From now on, the burden of mitigating, as well as paying for the impacts of climate change, has decisively shifted to developing countries. Note, too, that in the post-Paris scenario, developed countries have no legal targets on emissions cuts.

'Ambitious' Agreement

The Paris Agreement has emphatically recognised that the increase in global average temperature has to remain well below 2°C and the world will pursue efforts to limit such increase to 1.5°C. This is an ambitious target. Global warming target of 1.5°C reduces the risks of worst impacts of climate change significantly.

But doubt any negotiator that left the conference room in Paris on the night of December 12, 2015 actually believed the goal of 1.5°C could be met. Negotiators I met used terms like “aspiration” and “compromise” to justify the mention of 1.5°C in the Agreement. The fact is, Paris Agreement is devoid of elements that can place the world on a 1.5 °C trajectory.

Climate scientists know, and have been saying that, to meet the 1.5°C target, the world must completely de-carbonise well before 2050. This means that we have to stop using all fossil fuels by 2035 and achieve net zero emissions of other greenhouse gases by 2050. This is not happening.

The Paris Agreement, in fact, ensures that we, more or less, finish the carbon budget for 1.5°C well before 2030. You see, developed countries have refused to reduce more emissions, before 2020, than what they had promised in Cancun in 2010. What they promised in Cancun was a pittance. Now, under the Paris Agreement, the world has agreed to undertake the first serious global stocktake, on what collectively the world has done and what it should do in future, in 2023. This means that by the time countries will make some extra commitments, post stocktake, we would have reached the year 2025. Effectively, we are not likely to see any change in the emissions trajectory before 2025. In 2025, the 1.5°C will be in the rear view mirror; we will be staring at a fast-approaching 2°C.

'Important achievement' for India

Let’s now turn to what India has achieved. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the opening day of the Paris conference, he spoke a) about the need of developed country to vacate carbon space and b) the need to keep alive the idea of “differentiation” of developed and developing countries. He also spoke about climate justice and a sustainable lifestyle. As he put it, “the lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder”.  Let’s judge India’s achievements in the light of his words.

It is quite clear that India has got all the “words” it wanted in the Paris decision. The Agreement is under the 1992 UN Climate Convention. India has also got language, related to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDRRC), in the light of different national circumstances, mentioned at various points in the text. These, according to Indian negotiators, keep alive “differentiation” between developed and developing countries.

It has mentions terms like “climate justice”, “sustainable lifestyle” and “consumption”. But such mentions are not in the operational parts of the Agreement and so there are no commitments related to these concepts.

So what are the implications of these words?

Firstly, as historic responsibilities of the developed world have been erased, in “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, “differentiated responsibilities” is out and what remains is only “respective capabilities”. So, from now on, it will be the respective capabilities of countries and their national circumstances that will underpin the climate actions they take.

This utterly dilutes the notion of differentiation. A country such as the US can now commit lower emissions cut on account of recession or its senate not agreeing to it, and justify these as “national circumstances”. On the other hand, “respective capabilities” implies that a country such as India might well be pushed to take on more emission cut and also put in money to support other developing countries. India is, after all, collectively, the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases and its GDP (in terms of purchase power parity) is also the third largest. Even though our per capita emissions are low, or the fact that a large number of Indians are desperately poor, the world is going to look at India as a whole and demand proportionate action.

Secondly, nowhere does the Agreement say that actions by countries will be based on a fair share of the remaining carbon space. In other words, India was not able to get the developed countries to vacate carbon space. This was always a tough task, made tougher because in Paris, India didn’t get, or couldn’t cobble together, the support of other countries on this issue.

The absence of the term carbon space in the Paris Agreement really worries me.  This will hurt India in the long run because the carbon space is fast disappearing. By 2030, if countries do not increase their ambition to reduce emissions, 60-75 per cent of the 2.0°C carbon budget will be exhausted, and nothing will be left of the 1.5 °C carbon budget. In 2030, the Human Development Index (HDI) of India will be less than 0.7. India will need carbon space post 2030 to meet basic development needs like food, shelter, infrastructure and energy. But this will not be available. 

I believe that the Paris Agreement ensures that India is going to be under constant pressure to do more from now onwards. Also, India’s development space has shrunk.


Climate justice means climate change should not lead to further inequality in the world; that the genuine aspirations of the poor are met and they are also shielded from the worst impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, the Paris Agreement is robbing the carbon space of the poor so that the rich can continue with their lifestyle. But I think the poor will fight back. Fortunately, the Paris Agreement is the beginning of the negotiations and not the end. Many important components of the Agreement –review and ratcheting of INDCs, how finance will delivered and reported, among others, are still to be negotiated.

So: “historic”, “ambitious”, “durable”, are just short-term laudatory adjectives. Just wait for the next five years and we will truly know.

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  • Some time back I through the comments, I referred my publication Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 77 (1995) 113-120, with reference to pause in temperature.

    The greenhouse gases effect follow inverted ‘Z’ shape [bottom horizontal part and top horizontal part interchange with slant as it is] pattern in conversion of energy in to temperature with the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    Ken Stewart on 16th December 2015 presented an article “Energy, Carbon Dioxide, and The Pause” by using energy data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015, CO2 data from NOAA, and Temperature data from UAH. Between 336 to 400 ppm of CO2 presented a relation of 0.0063 X, and between 370 to 400 ppm of CO2 presented 0.0004 X [pause].

    This is exactly what I presented in my above referred article with reference to relative growth or relative yield versus relative radiation stress or relative water stress or relative nutrient stress wherein maximum impact is in the slant line part shown in inverted Z.

    The horizontal portion in the present case started around 370 ppm – pause. The initial horizontal part might have ended at around 150 ppm. The slant portion has reached maximum in between 150 to 370 ppm of CO2.

    With more accurate temperature data that takes in to account the actual rural-cold-island effect [hither too was not partially taken in to account] will provide the correct limits to CO2 for starting of slant portion and starting of pause.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy | 4 years ago | Reply
  • To portrait India as a victim is a no-solution.

    This strategy was a wrong choice made by your government at COP21. It went nowhere and made India loosing its intellectual lead. The Chennai flood confirmed it very well during the COP21 : Climate change is here, ok, but the Chennai's problem was Indian mismanagement of its own environment (your low quality of urbanism) and own killing of your life system (your destruction of farms, trees, ponds). Nobody in Paris entered into your guilt-trip. The motto of the COP21 was "nature is winning the war we are making against it : The time is to be global and human first, national and political after". India missed it totally.

    This strategy is also the choice made by your communication. It will go nowhere but lure your public in a no-future. You are paving the way to a shock therapy : the shock of climate change and biodiversity loss coming your way will open opportunity to your own rich to spoil you more... because you are misleading your public against foreigners and letting insiders robbing them.

    My opinion is that your guilt-trip will make you loose more than you can imagine. You will not only loose your nature but also your culture.

    Posted by: Cdp | 4 years ago | Reply
  • The world is in a global climate crisis and needs urgent attention. To keep a check on global warming and rise in green house gas concentrations, there has been efforts but the debates at various international forums has brought very little changes with respect to the owning of quantitative measures by developed and the developing nations. The emissions already delivered into the space need to be reduced by taking measures by carbon capture techniques or by adopting technologies of low or no emissions.The countries have to come forward to share carbon space if the global temperature has to be limited well below 2 degrees Celsius. We need to stop thinking of 2 degrees figure.
    The growth of agreements has brought the understanding of the gravity of crisis ahead to an almost standstill situation yet it is not clearly bringing out what is to be done by each contributing country.
    Dr R M MEHTA

    Posted by: Ravinder Mehta | 4 years ago | Reply