From Copenhagen to Paris

The Current State of Climate Negotiations

The Eiffel Tower is seen at sunset in Paris, France, November 22, 2015. The capital will host the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) from November 30 to December 11. Charles Platiau / Reuters

When the world gathers in Paris at the end of this month for the latest round of climate negotiations, many eyes will be on the United States and China—and for good reason. Together, they produce more than two-fifths of the world’s CO2. And they will continue to be the most significant greenhouse-gas emitters, in absolute terms, for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, last November, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Beijing to broker a climate partnership with China. At the time, Obama promised to reduce the United States’ emissions by 26–28 percent of its 2005 levels by 2025. China, in return, announced that it would reach its peak emissions by 2030, if not sooner. A year later, during his state visit to Washington in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping followed up on his pledge by committing China to a national cap-and-trade system for reducing emissions from key industrial sectors such as steel, cement, and electricity within two years. The so-called G-2’s commitments are a significant step forward since there is no chance of stabilizing global temperatures if the United States and China do not curb their greenhouse-gas emissions.

But even as China caps its emissions, India’s will be accelerating, raising the question of whether we are looking at the right G-2. For now, we are. But if India continues on that trajectory, the world is unlikely to reach its goal to stop global warming at the oft-cited two degrees Celsius threshold that many scientists say could trigger catastrophic natural disasters. And in that case, India may end up counterbalancing the United States at climate talks, just as China is doing today.

A boy reacts after catching a fish in a dried-up pond near the banks of the Ganges river Allahabad, India, June 4, 2015. Jitendra Prakash / Reuters

One of the main hindrances to negotiations thus far is not necessarily over absolute emissions levels, but relative emissions. There are many ways to divvy up the climate “pie”: For example, one option

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