Change in the air: Progress by China, US and India on carbon cuts raises hope for climate change deal in Paris
James Wertsch, Shen Dingli and Swaran Singh say the substantial carbon emission targets announced by the world's major economies are raising hope for a comprehensive climate change agreement in Paris
With India's submission to the UN this month of its intended contributions on carbon emission cuts, all the major economies have now formally submitted pledges, setting the stage for a positive outcome at the Paris climate change summit that begins next month.
While US and EU leaders have been at the forefront in building a global consensus on climate change, it is China - the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide since 2006 - that has taken the lead in promising to reduce "carbon intensity". Beijing has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product generation by as much as 60 to 65 per cent of its 2005 levels, by 2030.
The European Union has pledged to reduce the same by 40 per cent, and Brazil by 37 per cent, both by 2030. The US, meanwhile, has pledged to reduce emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent by 2025.
While most EU leaders, especially Angela Merkel, have clearly put climate change on their agendas ahead of the Paris summit, the US has taken the lead in engaging emerging powers like China, India and Brazil. President Barack Obama's separate meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, have produced greater understanding among the three economies, the world's top three carbon emitters. All have made a serious commitment to act.
Since the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012, the global community has not been able to evolve a succeeding framework of reduction targets. In particular, the failure to reach agreement at the high-profile climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 has been largely blamed on China and India, both of whom did not approve of the top-down approach taken by the US-led G7 grouping.
Since then, however, both countries have demonstrated a far more nuanced approach, and are showing themselves to be determined and responsible stakeholders in addressing the climate change crisis. Likewise, the G7 has also become far more sensitive to the perspectives and needs of the developing economies.
In hindsight, the deadlock at Copenhagen was also the result of resistance by US business lobbies that felt that the norm of "common but differentiated responsibility" was putting them at an unfair disadvantage: while US companies have to foot the bill for complying with emissions standards, their competitors in emerging economies could avoid the expense because such standards did not apply to them.
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Sentiments in the US have changed in the last few years, however. The use of fracking - a technique that has enabled the extraction of huge amounts of oil and natural gas from shale deposits in the US - has turned the country from an energy importer to a net energy exporter. The rapid switch from coal to natural gas has significantly reduced America's carbon emissions. It has also made Washington more open to working with Beijing and New Delhi to tackle climate change.
Notwithstanding the optimism, there are two pieces of bad news: hydrocarbons are still being burned in massive quantities, and the sudden lowering of fossil fuel prices has eroded the incentive to develop solar and other renewable energy technologies.
The challenges are immense. Take India, now the world's third-biggest carbon emitter. Given Modi's vision of making its manufacturing sector a major engine of growth, the country's need for energy is set to increase. Further, per capita income and consumption levels that are currently extremely low are expected to rise rapidly. With development, millions more Indians are set to gain access to electricity. Its energy consumption - and carbon emissions - will grow exponentially.
Before the submission of its carbon reduction targets to the UN, India underwent an intense debate on how the different regions and sectors could reasonably cope with any new regulation. The national target it eventually agreed on - to cut its carbon intensity by up to 35 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 - is its most ambitious yet.
In addition, it has committed itself to producing 40 per cent of its electricity using renewable or low-carbon sources. This remains an uphill task, especially if there remains no easy access to finance, technology and expertise from advanced countries.
Both China and India are now making concerted efforts to act on the climate change crisis - on their terms. The two have repeatedly pointed out that the major culprit for our environmental challenge today was the rapid industrialisation that mainly benefited the advanced economies. Thus, leaders in both nations have pushed for assistance in mitigation measures, such as the transfer of technology and the provision of finance and expertise.
On the whole, Chinese and Indian leaders have shown commendable perseverance in balancing domestic pressures with international expectations. Both appear to have given up on presenting their case either in cumulative terms (that is, emphasising that developing countries bear far less responsibility for carbon emissions than the advanced countries), or in per capita terms.
The leaders of both countries have shown sagacity in engaging other major stakeholders, especially Obama, and in focusing on solutions to this global crisis.
In this 70th anniversary year of the United Nations, there is added pressure to produce a positive outcome in Paris, where leaders must agree on new targets for the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The coming six weeks will see leaders trying to build a consensus among not only the major stakeholders that will feature at Paris, but also their own domestic political factions.
Professor James Wertsch is vice-chancellor (international relations) at Washington University. Professor Shen Dingli is associate dean at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai. Professor Swaran Singh is chair of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi