Quantcast
Climate

Low-Carbon Economies Most Promising Pathway to Meaningful Global Climate Agreement

As the world gathers in Lima to discuss next year’s climate deadline, a lot of focus is on the U.S.-China climate agreement. While alone that deal has not paved a pathway for a meaningful global agreement all the way to Paris, if you detour through New Delhi something intriguing and hopeful emerges.

I was sitting in a New Delhi conference room filled with U.S. and Indian climate experts and diplomats preparing to discuss our bilateral issues when the U.S.-China announcement was made. The shock was palpable—the Indians felt that China had betrayed the block of emerging nations—but out of their conversations emerged, in my mind, the most hopeful road yet to a meaningful, if still only partial, global climate accord.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo Credit: U.S. China Perception Monitor

Many of the Indians had expected China to abandon their common front—but China’s agreement to a date—2030—to cap its emissions was the big jolt. The Indians, correctly, felt that by making an agreement with the U.S. China had set up India as a major global target, and that they would now be under intense pressure to set a date for their emissions to peak—which they will not do. That pressure has now begun. India is the new climate villain.

Indians don’t understand why. The U.S. emits 17 tons of CO2 per person; China 8 tons; India only 1.7. The U.S. emits only 81 pounds of CO2 for every dollar of economic output; India 260 pounds; China a whopping 380 pounds.

India is not willing to set a date on which its emissions will peak—because most of its industrial base, transportation networks and urban infrastructure have not yet been built. But it is willing to negotiate around the carbon intensity of its economy—and potentially to be quite ambitious. (It had already agreed to cut carbon intensity 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.) The new government has increased the clean energy target five-fold, to 10 gigawatts per year, and wants to phase out coal imports within three years.

Carbon intensity is the pathway that really matters in the next round of global climate negotiations. Nations don’t size their economic aspirations to their carbon goals.  They project how big an economy they anticipate—or desire—and set a more or less ambitious goal for reducing its carbon intensity with efficiency, renewables or other programs. Climate scientists then translate these commitments into total greenhouse pollution, and tell us how far we are from where we need to be—multiplying promised intensity by projected economic size. But what nations actually alter through climate policy is the carbon intensity, not the size, of their future economy.

India, then, wants to negotiate around the basic policy variable countries wrestle with—how rapidly they will replace dirty fossil energy with more productive, efficient and clean energy. This variable is also one which accommodates the broad diversity of emerging market economies, from a grossly inefficient massive emitter like China through a mid-range but still fairly inefficient economy like India’s to smaller, rural African countries with tiny energy consumption, most of it biomass. Technological progress is easily modeled in an energy intensity context—cheaper solar allows every nation with sunshine to be more ambitious about its carbon intensity—even if as a result it grows, and sheds poverty faster. (The Government of India has estimated that in a business as usual strategy the carbon intensity of its economy would come down by 22 percent by 2030, but with low carbon policies it could come down 42 percent. In its April 2014 report on low-carbon growth, the Indian Planning Commission estimated that India could bring its 2030 emissions down from 3.6 tons per capita to only 2.6 tons, but that the additional investment required would be 1.5 percent of GDP.

The Indians argue that if low carbon energy costs poor countries more than their available fossil choices, the Global North, which created the climate crisis, should help them finance the transition. The rich nations have thus far been unwilling to offer what the Global South views as adequate funding.

Clearly, however, the cheaper clean energy gets, the smaller such a premium becomes. So the conversation then shifts to “how do we make clean energy cheaper for poor countries?” That's a question to which there are many win-win solutions since most of them make energy cheaper for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations as well. (There is still the problem of paying for the damages caused by climate disruption already occurring—really, shouldn’t the polluter pay?)

Negotiating only on carbon intensity does leave the possibility that as nations advance economically, they never limit and reduce total emissions. The previous Indian government promised that India would accept a per capita carbon goal—the average level of emissions from OECD nations.  The average Indian would always emit less carbon than the average citizen of industrial nations. As OECD per capita emission targets came down, so would India’s per capita goal. This kind of “cap” appeared to be still on the table—if the wealthy countries make good faith efforts to help emerging economies with finance and technology transfer.

The problem is thus not that carbon intensity is the wrong measure—it’s that our clean energy goals are not ambitious enough.

Events since our Delhi meeting and the U.S.-China deal strongly suggest that a climate pathway can be threaded through India. Late in November, India and China agreed with longstanding U.S. suggestions that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—the most potent known greenhouse pollutant—should be regulated under the existing Montreal Ozone Protocol, which already provides financing mechanisms and is able to move quickly. President Obama has indicated that he will go to India in the new year, setting the stage for more conversations.  India has demonstrated its ability to bring renewable energy into the marketplace at a lower cost than its Asian neighbors, with recent solar bids being lower than electricity from imported coal.

But the historic focus of climate diplomacy on caps and cuts may slow down progress on the pathway which really offers the greatest initial promise—a recognition that rapidly lowering the carbon intensity of every nation’s economy, while making low carbon economies more dynamic and robust, is the most promising pathway to a critical mass of ambitious climate commitments in Paris.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Momentous Pressure on World Leaders as Climate Talks Begin in Lima

3 Key Issues Governments Must Agree On at Lima Climate Talks

Pope Francis: We Are ‘Stewards, Not Masters’ of the Earth

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Shutterstock

EPA: Perchlorate in Drinking Water Can Harm Fetal Brain Development

By Tom Neltner

Pursuant to a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing drinking water regulations to protect fetuses and young children from perchlorate, a toxic chemical that inhibits the thyroid's ability to make the hormone T4 essential to brain development. The rulemaking is part of a long process that began in 2011 when the agency made a formal determination that Safe Drinking Water Act standards for perchlorate were needed. Under the consent decree, EPA should propose a standard by October 2018.

In the latest step in that process, EPA's scientists released a draft report in September that, at long last, answers questions posed by its Science Advisory Board in 2013: does perchlorate exposure during the first trimester reduce production of T4 in pregnant women with low iodine consumption? Does reduction in maternal T4 levels in these women adversely affect fetal brain development? According to EPA's scientists, the answers are Yes and Yes.

Keep reading... Show less
Cafeteria Culture

Ditch Plastic Lunches: Stand Up for Zero-Waste Schools

  • Carrots in a Ziploc
  • Grapes in a bag
  • Sandwich in saran wrap, with a "fresh daily" tag
  • Water bottle snuggled by an extra pair of socks
  • Plastic straw
  • Chips to gnaw
  • Juice in a box

That's an average American kids lunch stuffed in a school bag, with enough plastic packaging to wallpaper the classroom. Once it comes to school lunch, we don't practice what we preach, so let's unpackage what we teach.

Keep reading... Show less
Pexels

Trump's 'Hold' on Elephant Trophies May Not Be Enough

As many of you may have heard by now, President Donald Trump tweeted, and Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke reiterated, a decision late Friday night to put elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe "on hold" out of the belief that "conservation and healthy herds are critical."

This follows the administration's decision, on Thursday, to allow such imports after finding Zimbabwe's management of its elephant population "enhances the survival of the species" (referred to as a "positive enhancement finding") under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The announcement reversed the Obama-era suspension on such imports due to finding the opposite: that Zimbabwe was NOT successfully managing its elephant population.

Keep reading... Show less

Fracking Chemicals Remain Secret Despite EPA Knowledge of Health Hazards

By Tasha Stoiber

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows that dozens of the chemicals used in fracking pose health hazards. The agency not only allows their use, but also lets the oil and gas industry keep the chemicals secret, according to a new report.

Between 2003 and 2014 the EPA identified health hazards for 41 chemicals used in fracking, according to a report from the Partnership for Policy Integrity and Earthworks, based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Fracking is the injection of a chemical slurry into drilling sites to free up underground oil and gas deposits. Hazards from the chemicals used included irritation to eyes and skin; harm to the liver, kidney and nervous system; and damage to the developing fetus.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Protesters in Bonn call on politicians to fight climate change. Spielvogel / Wikimedia Commons

Global Warming Timeline, Political Will: Top Questions After COP23

As the world increasingly looks to be on track for a catastrophic 3°C of global warming, world leaders and diplomats gathered in Bonn, Germany to turn the Paris agreement into a set of rules.

In that sense the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23), which concluded on Saturday, accomplished its goal of keeping the process alive by setting up the rules that will be finalized next year in Poland. But the conference also kicked a number of issues down the road. The round of climate talks heard repeated calls for a more ambitious approach to slashing carbon emissions but did not initiate any conclusive solutions, though it should be noted that no major decisions were expected.

Keep reading... Show less
U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Florida Schools' Food Waste Program: A Win-Win to Fight Hunger and Save the Environment

You've probably heard the unsettling stories of school cafeteria workers throwing away students' lunches over unpaid lunch bills, but schools in Orange County, Florida have come up with a genius solution to not only help feed hungry students and their communities, but to also cut down on food waste.

For the past two years, about 20 public elementary schools in the Florida county have been using "share tables" to great effect, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The program allows kids to place their unwanted food on designated tables so others can eat them. This means the food doesn't have to be thrown out. Instead, fellow students who are still hungry can just grab the food themselves off the tables.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Hurricane Harvey flooding. Jill Carlson / Flickr

Record Number of Americans 'Very Worried' About Climate Change

As someone who writes about the environment on a near-daily basis, the fact that a large chunk of Americans (about one in eight) reject the near scientific consensus of climate change can be a tough pill to swallow.

But after a year of record-breaking heatwaves, massive wildfires in the west, and a string of destructive hurricanes, it appears that my fellow U.S. citizens are waking up to the realities of our hot, new world, according to the latest nationally representative survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
iStock

Nursery Bans Glitter, Calls on Others to Follow Their Example

By Imogen Calderwood

Glitter is great, right? Particularly now that it's getting dark and cold and a bit depressing outside.

But, as much as we love glitter for making everything look festive, a chain of children's nurseries in the UK might actually have a point.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!