US-China climate deal: Maker or breaker?

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

In my previous article I wrote that India should demand an ambitious climate change deal, because we need the world to stay safe—below the guardrail of 2°C rise in temperature. I also said that for the deal to be effective, it is necessary to ensure that every country has the right to development but within the planetary limits. In other words, we must operationalise equity, a prerequisite for global cooperation on climate change.

But at times a week can be a long time for international negotiations that have been stuck for 20 years. Last week, the US and China signed a bilateral agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Western commentators have been ecstatic, lauding the deal as both historic and ambitious. With China in the bag, India is the target. It is already painted as the bad boy in climate change negotiations. The question on the minds of US-based journalists and NGOs is: when will India agree to cut its emissions?

As I said, a week can be a long time in climate change negotiations. While the world has not been able to operationalise equity for the past 20 years, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping did it at one stroke. They operationalised equity, but in a way that will take us all to a sure catastrophe.

How? My colleagues have done some number crunching on the US-China deal. Under this agreement, the US has agreed to take domestic actions so that it will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below the 2005 levels by 2025. China has agreed that it will peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and then start reducing it. It has also agreed to raise the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 per cent of its primary energy mix by 2030. Time for a loud hurrah? Not so fast.

US-China climate deal

First, what this means is that the US and China have agreed to “equalise” their emissions by 2030. Both countries would have “equal” per capita emissions in 2030. The US would reduce emissions marginally from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes per person per year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes per person per year.

In fact, the cake is carved up in such a manner that each country would occupy equal atmospheric space by 2030. We know that countries have a cumulative share of emissions in the atmosphere. The US-China deal makes it clear that both the countries individually get 16 per cent of the atmospheric space by 2030.

The problem is that the occupier gets it all. This deal has defined equity as good for the US and China, but bad for the planet. At this level of emissions, the world will definitely cross the 2°C mark and go towards 4-5°C, unless India, Brazil, South Africa and all the rest of the emerging world stop their emissions right now.

This is now the next move. In the well-orchestrated media and NGO campaign, pressure is being put on India and the rest to forego their right to development. They must act, says the pack. The US and China together have shown the way.

So, what should India do? Going by the US-China deal, India needs to do nothing. Its current per capita emissions are 1.8 tonnes and by 2030, under the business-as-usual scenario, it will be 4 tonnes—nowhere close to that of the US and China. Between 2011 and 2030, China will take over 25 per cent of the remaining carbon space; US will occupy 11 per cent more and India only 7 per cent more. So, unless the Indian government wants to tell its people they are second-class citizens of the world, it should start occupying more. In other words, post the US-China agreement, India should be accelerating its growth so that it can catch up.

Clearly, this is not what we should do as it is not in our interest to blow up the world. But equally (this is really difficult to explain to the US-based media and NGOs) it is not in our interest to believe that the US-China deal is good for the world. It sets the world on a dangerous path where all countries will want their right to pollute. It is in our interest to demand that the US and China must reduce emissions at the scale and pace needed to ensure that the world stays below the danger mark. It is in our interest to demand that we will all accept limits, but based on equity.

PS: I say this with great sadness but I know that my words will not be read or understood by the many US-based journalists who have been calling to ask why India is not as “responsible” as US and China.

Operationalising an equity reference framework in the climate change regime: legal and technical perspectives

Advancing the climate change negotiations: issues to consider

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  • As everybody is clamoring for

    As everybody is clamoring for a share in green fund, it is appropriate to use the term "Global Warming" in place of "Climate Change". Let Lima meet decide on this issue to avoid confusion in public and media mind. Climate change is vast subject.

    Read the manual on "Climate Change" published by World Meteorological Organization in 1966 -- the authors of that manual were top meteorologists from meteorological departments from developed and developing countries. The procedure proposed in that manual was used in a recent report of American Academy of Sciences and British Royal Society to eliminate natural variation and get the trend in global temperature.

    My position is: at present the main component that is influencing the climate is natural variability -- weather extremes are part of this. This is modified locally by changes in ecology & direct impact of human and natural impacts. Water resources, agriculture and health of life forms are affected by pollution [air, water, soil and food]. In India the major problem people are facing are corruption and adulteration.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent perspective. Thanks

    Excellent perspective.

    Thanks for untiring work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Narain is right. The

    Sunita Narain is right. The US should stop fracking for shale production because that generates maximum GHG. It has made a compromise with China because China too has plans for producing non-conventional oil and gas and carry out other activities that will generate more and more GHG.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • An interesting article. But

    An interesting article. But I'm not sure that 'both countries would have ÔÇ£equalÔÇØ per capita emissions in 2030'. Has that been stated explicity? All Ive seen are a loose commitment by China to stabalise GHG emissions by 'about 2030' and a US aim to cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for this article,

    Thank you for this article, it is an important counter-perspective to what I've heard from Western media. I concur that India as a nation shouldn't be under obligation to agree to curb its emissions; and that it is definitely in our interests to invest in a more sustainable economy, as this is where we must eventually head.
    I'd like to comment, though, that many rich, urban Indians would have footprints closer to the Western norm. While masses of people who lack sufficient access to energy and resources bring the national average to within the 'sustainable fair share' of 2 tonnes CO2e/year, clearly most of us who are reading this article will emit far more than this! In my view, it is still our responsibility to reduce emissions. An SUV has a similar negative impact wherever it is in the world. As individuals, we should not relinquish our responsibility on the backs of our brothers' & sisters' lack of consumptions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent editorial on the

    Excellent editorial on the US-China carbon agreement Sunita. I had no idea it was so superficial in practice.
    What is really odd is that the US media (and especially their NGOs) cannot understand the inequity or lack of fairness especially in relation to India, and Indonesia no doubt as well. Why is there such a lack of comprehension I wonder.

    Cheers - John

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • India's per Capita emissions

    India's per Capita emissions are way below that of China. China has recently announced that they will have their peak emissions by 2030. In short they could increase their emissions exponentially without any brakes till 2030 and yet Western MSM and NGOs applauding the US-China deal. I commend you for having written about it and showing that this is a ploy for China to continue its increase in emissions till 2030 unhindered.

    India should announce that they would also peak their emissions by 2030. It should be business as usual for India and go full throttle with development. This will provide for the necessary infrastructure for the less privileged people of India.

    Even if India goes full throttle on emission we will still be below world average per Capita emissions even in 2030.

    Note: CO2 Emissions from fossil fuel is insignificant compared to the total CO2 produced/consumed by nature. Also it has to be established conclusively that CO2 plays key role in Temperature increase.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Good analysis Sunita. With

    Good analysis Sunita. With such rhetoric of USA and China, earth is bound to be in trouble. Given the global CO2 budget, we are left with 1000 billion tons (Giga tons) that we can emit by 2100 to limit the soaring temperature below 2┬░ C. It is high time to press this issue by now and be prepared for next year Paris summit for the final decision and declaration. Undoubtedly countries should act based on the criteria provided by Kyoto protocol with a clear line between developed and developing countries. At the same time all the nations irrespective of any distinction should holistically decide the fate of the current meandering of climate path. The CBDR and for that matter INDC ( one of the focal points of Lima) are quite relevant.
    Better late than never. Still we can accomplish the targets and imagine a carbon neutral world for us and posterity. I hope the current global meeting and the Paris next year might bring some change in the climate change.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply