Over the next week, leaders and diplomats from nearly 200 countries are expected to agree on a deal to cut carbon emissions.
The United Nations-led conference, also known as COP21, is being touted as crucial for fighting climate change, since similar attempts in 1992 (Rio), 1997 (Kyoto) and 2009 (Copenhagen) failed to reach a consensus. Many countries pulled out of talks and some, such as India and China, never agreed to cuts. Meanwhile, emissions surged.
Why is a deal more likely this time?
Rather than impose legally binding cuts, the UN asked each country to commit to a goal based on its economic needs. So far, every major “emitter” has pledged to reduce its carbon output. And they have done so voluntarily. This has never happened before.
These pledges, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, can be found here . These documents detail how each country plans to cut emissions and by how much - be it through legislation, investment or a gradual shift to clean energy.
Will the deal be legally binding?
Almost everyone at the table wants it to be legally binding , but the US insists it doesn’t want a “treaty.” The US constitution defines a treaty as a specific kind of international agreement that needs ratification from the Senate. But the Obama administration doesn’t want a gridlocked US legislature to block the deal. It currently has a Republican majority.
So the Paris deal will probably carry just enough legal force to fall short of being labelled a treaty.
Who are the biggest emitters?
Asia currently produces a lot of carbon dioxide. China, the world’s largest emitter, and India, its third largest, account for much of the greenhouse gas emissions in Asia.
The cartograms (or maps) below visualize the continents based on their carbon emissions. Instead of area, these maps use greenhouse gases as a data point. So the bigger the continent appears, the higher the emissions.
On a per capita basis, however, India and China produce a lot less carbon dioxide. The average American, for instance, emits 17 metric tons per capita, according to the World Bank . The average Indian produces a tenth of that. In China, that figure is a little higher - 6.7 metric tons.
But as Asian economies grow, so will their per capita carbon footprint. That’s why it’s imperative that they agree to cuts now, so they can start moving towards clean energy.
Although developing countries don’t dispute this, they say these demands do not account for historical emissions - greenhouse gases that have been released into the atmosphere for more than a century. The blame for that, they say, lies with the US and the EU.
This map shows how industrialized nations hold the lion share of emissions - 79% to be exact - for the last 160 years.
What’s the sticking point?
The Modi government insists it’s unfair to ask poorer countries to cut emissions at the cost of economic growth given that developed countries got rich by burning fossil fuels.
India has pledged to cut carbon intensity - ie, carbon output per unit of economic activity. Total emissions will keep growing but the average rate of emission will drop as countries use polluting sources such as coal and gas more efficiently.
Unlike China, which has agreed to stop emissions growth beyond 2030, India has not said when its carbon output will peak. But like China, it’s pushing hard for renewable energy. It will shift to clean energy, it says, if developed countries pitch in as promised .
Although they have pledged billions toward developing renewables, the week ahead will reveal whether the US and the EU will lead by example or force India, China and other developing countries to concede to deep cuts.
This continuing argument has resulted in a conversation about which countries are doing their fair share.