A flower grows close to a thermal power plant on the outskirts of Nagpur, December 9, 2009.
Arko Datta / Reuters

During the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris this November, there will be more in the conference rooms than white boards, translation technology, and steely-eyed negotiators. There will also be an elephant. Namely, the gap between the carbon-cutting pledges that countries are making and the cuts that scientists say are needed to keep the increase in the average global temperature below 1.5–2 degrees Celsius (2.7–3.6 degrees in Fahrenheit)—the threshold that likely separates the world from the worst effects of climate change.

Nearly everyone involved in the climate process expects such a gap to exist. What’s unknown is how big it will

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