With 2015 to be hottest year on track, top carbon culprits US, China, India debate roles

Published 01.12.2015 00:00
Updated 01.12.2015 00:30

Meeting at the UN-led Climate Change Conference, 151 presidents, prime ministers, kings, princes and a chancellor are trying to do what governments have never done before: get all countries to agree to contribute to slow global warming.

Call them the culprits of carbon. Leaders of the United States, China and India the world's top three carbon polluters engaged in some private diplomacy Monday on the sidelines of the international climate change conference. And while each spoke of a shared interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, members of the trio differed in nuance. Each has to attend to his own interests.

A look at the geopolitics of climate change, as practiced by President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

WHO'S NO. 1?

China gets the distinction of top billing among carbon polluters, having overtaken the U.S. as its economy has rapidly expanded. It accounts for about 28 percent of global emissions. The U.S. is second at 14 percent. India places third, at 7 percent. Those 2013 numbers are the latest figures from the U.S. Energy Department's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. New figures come out next week.


The president said the U.S. "not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it." His administration has pledged to reduce U.S. emissions to 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 10 years if the Republican-controlled Congress or the courts don't block him or his successors reverse him.

But Obama also wants developing nations who didn't play a big role in creating the problem to share responsibility for fixing it by limiting their future greenhouse gas emissions. He said they need to "skip the dirty phase of development" and go straight to cleaner technologies. And that could be costly.

There's a long-running dispute over whether developing nations should share the same burden as industrialized nations, and neither Xi nor Modi fully embraced Obama's all-in-it-together message. Obama did acknowledge "you cannot forge a climate agreement without taking into consideration the level of development."

But Congress is blocking the first installment of the $3 billion he pledged to a U.N. fund to help developing nations transition to cleaner energy and cope with the effects of climate change.


China has had a change in mindset since being accused of obstructing climate talks in Copenhagen six years ago. It has invested in solar, wind and hydro power and promised to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by 65 percent.

Xi also has pledged $3.1 billion to help developing countries combat climate change. But the Chinese president stressed Monday that the eventual climate deal must include aid for poor countries and respect differences between developing and established nations. He said the deal should accommodate national interests.

"Addressing climate change should not deny the legitimate needs of developing countries to reduce poverty and improve living standards," he said.


With at least 300 million people lacking access to electricity, India faces a particular challenge in restraining future greenhouse gas emissions as its economy grows and brings prosperity to those millions. It has promised to reduce its emissions intensity by 33 percent to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Emissions would continue to grow under the plan, as its economy grows. But the increase relative to economic output would be lower than otherwise.

Modi called Obama his friend and pledged to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. on new technology initiatives. But he's also sounding a not-our-fault message.

He stressed that climate change is a global problem "not of our making" and called for restoring "a balance between economy and ecology." As Modi wrote in the Financial Times this week: "The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities should be the bedrock of our collective enterprise. Anything else would be morally wrong."

Obama, for his part, said that while he recognized Modi's deeply felt desire to pursue "development, growth and poverty eradication," the Paris deal also "has to reflect serious and ambitious action by all nations to curb their carbon pollution."


This year is on track to be the hottest since people started keeping track. Several recent years also broke heat records. On average, the world has already warmed more than 1 degree C since pre-industrial times, and the majority of the world's climate scientists agree that is largely due to man-made emissions of heat-trapping gases.

It's not just the temperature rising. Glaciers are melting, sea levels rising, and extreme weather events such as heat waves are happening more often. Leaders of island nations speaking Monday appealed for help from bigger countries to ensure their very long-term survival as countries.

The last global climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only required rich countries to reduce those carbon emissions, mainly from burning oil, gas and coal. The U.S., then the world's biggest emitter, didn't take part.

In 2009, governments meeting in Copenhagen tried to reach a global accord requiring commitments from rich and poor countries alike and famously failed. Leaders speaking Monday referred to that failure and insisted they don't want to repeat it but many of the old battle lines remain, between north and south, developed economies and still developing economies.

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