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US-China climate deal lowers expectations of strong global climate deal in 2015

Eases pressure on India to take difficult emission reduction targets

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

The US and China announced a historic and sub-par bilateral pact on climate change ahead of the UN negotiations that will lead to a new global agreement in 2015 in Paris. The US announced it would reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 24-26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China announced it would ensure its emissions peak by around 2030.

Together, historically the largest emitter of GHG gases and the current biggest emitter China set an extremely low benchmark for other countries to follow under the Paris agreement. The move drained out hope of a 2015 climate agreement and consequent commitments from countries at Paris that could keep the global temperature rise below 2 degree Celsius.

But, on the flip side, it eased the pressure on India, a far smaller emitter than the US and China, to take on any onerous new commitments in the short run. While India is expected to also put up a domestically decided target soon, it will now have the example of the two countries to also commit to a low-range target. The target could be in terms of only a slower rate of growth of emission intensity or accompanied by a long-off target year for peaking when India’s emissions would peak — a year much beyond that China has announced.

For the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, still mulling the ideas advocated by its newly appointed minister, Suresh Prabhu to distance India from China and bring it closer to the West, fell apart with the announcement. The joint declaration showed that there were several major issues in the climate negotiations where China, India and the US actually saw eye to eye in aiming to protect their short-term economic interests though not necessarily fighting a robust fight to slow down climate change.

The higher end of the US target of cutting emissions by 26 cent cut by 2025 below 2005 levels is so low that it already has environmentalists up in arms. It translates to a mere 13.88 cent cut reduction below 1990 levels by 2025. The ball for a low-hanging fruit had been set in place earlier by EU announcing that it would only take a 40 per cent cut to its emissions below 1990 levels by 2030, of which it has already achieved around 20 per cent reduction. The US target fell even lower on relative terms to the EU targets. Its new target is less than half of that the EU has promised to take by 2030. Both the EU and the US promised targets are far below the upper range for emission cuts that the UN climate panel had set at 40 per cent four years ago and has now revised upwards.

  • US: 24-25% cut below 2005 levels by 2025
  • China: Peak its total emissions by 2030 and then go below
  • EU: 30-40% 1990 levels by 2030
  • US: 16.4 tonne CO2 per capita emissions
  • China: 7.1 tonne CO2 per capita emissions
  • India: 1.6 tonne CO2 per capita emissions
  • EU: 7.4 tonne CO2 per capita emissions
  • US: 12 tonne*CO2 per capita emissions with new target
  • China: 12 tonne*CO2 per capita emissions with new target
  • India: 4-7.5 tonne CO2 per capita emissions with business as usual

*Approximate figures
Source: UNFCCC, Centre for Science and Environment and Government of India

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)’s Sunita Narain lambasted the US-China announcement, saying it was neither “historic” nor ambitious, but just a self-serving agreement between the world’s two biggest polluters. Extrapolating the numbers, CSE said the two countries would converge at 12 tonne per capita of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by 2030, leaving the world on a trajectory that would take global temperature rise beyond 3 degree by the end of the century.

CSE’s Chandra Bhushan said, “In fact, if India were to follow the principals of this (US-China) deal, then we need not do anything till 2040 and beyond. Our per capita emissions in 2030 will be less than 4 tonne per capita CO2e compared to 12 tonne per capita of the US and China,” he adds.

The Indian government’s earlier compendium of five modelling studies done by different institutions showed that India’s emissions remained between 4-7.5 tonne per capita by 2030. These studies were conducted before the climate change action plans were put in place and India took a target to cut emission intensity of its economy by 20-25 per cent by 2020.

Countries are required to formally volunteer their targets to fight climate change by March 2015 which will form part of the new global agreement to be signed in December 2015. This new agreement is to operate from 2020 onwards. For all practical purposes, the developed countries have already locked down the targets for the pre-2020 period and have steadfastly refused to up them. The US has a 17 per cent below 2005 level target which equals to less than 1 per cent reduction below 1990 levels. The EU has taken a 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 target.

The US and China have announced that they will formally submit these new numbers as part of their voluntary targets for the 2015 agreement. While some countries have asked that such voluntary targets be assessed for their adequacy and equitable burden sharing between countries, and have objected to the move for different reasons. The joint announcement has revived memories of the 2009 Copenhagen deal that brought the BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) together with US, snubbing EU and its allies. The joint US-China decision along with the low EU target promises to now turn Paris 2015 agreement in to a low-ambition deal with the promise of review of the adequacy of such numbers still uncertain.

First Published: Thu, November 13 2014. 00:36 IST