Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Paris Can't Be Another Copenhagen

| May 25, 2015

As a former prime minister of Australia, I understand something of the political costs leaders must bear in aiming to reconcile the long-term interests of the planet with short-term national interests.

After attending the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, I was attacked back home for either doing too much or too little in trying to bring about a binding global agreement.

We all failed at Copenhagen, though not for want of effort from many of us. The United Nations conference in Paris this December is the next opportunity for leaders of the world’s biggest economies to show real leadership in the slow-motion drama that is anthropogenic climate change.

The United States and China, the world’s biggest polluters, began tackling climate change together when they announced an agreement last November to curb carbon emissions. The United States promised to double the speed at which it will reduce carbon emissions, aiming for a 26-to-28 percent reduction by 2025 from 2005 levels, while China pledged to peak emissions by around 2030.

Meanwhile, India and China issued a joint statement on climate change earlier this month that included a pledge to submit plans on their own carbon targets before the Paris conference.

Five years ago, such joint announcements by the United States, China and India were seen as inconceivable. Now climate science makes them unavoidable.

The mathematical reality is that these three countries — the United States, China and India — together with the European Union, will in large part shape the future of the planet.

Between 1850 and 2012, the United States and Europe produced 45 percent of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, compared to 18 percent from China and India, according to the nonprofit organization Climate Analytics. Based on current practices, it is projected that by 2020, China alone will produce 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, India 7 percent, the United States 13 percent and the European Union 8 percent. Climate change action by China and India is now critical.

But China and India fear that radical action on greenhouse gas emissions will significantly reduce economic growth in a time when poverty reduction remains a national priority. We in the West cannot simply wave this problem away as if it is not our concern as well.

Still, India and China will face even greater problems if carbon emissions continue to increase.

India will be one of the states hardest hit by climate change, with increased coastal flooding and melting Himalayan glaciers. Rising global temperatures would make water security an even greater problem in India-Pakistan relations. William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has estimated that a modest increase in average global temperatures would cut agricultural output in India by 38 percent.

The stakes are as great for China. Earlier this year, the head of China’s national weather service warned that climate change would have “huge impacts” on the country, including reduced crop yields, ecological harm and unstable river flows. A 2011 government report anticipated a 5-to-20 percent drop in grain output resulting from climate change by 2050. Never mind the crisis the Chinese leadership already faces from unsustainable levels of air pollution in the country’s major cities.

While the United States’ total emissions are now considerably less than China’s, America’s per-capita emissions are three times that of China and 10 times India’s. If the United States wants to persuade China and India to shift to a low-carbon development path, it must make a determined effort to reduce the carbon intensity of its own economy by becoming more energy efficient and switching to low-carbon energy sources. Shale gas is one part of this equation.

Success in Paris this December will require a three-part approach.

First, the United States and China must rapidly increase collaboration on climate change both within and beyond the framework of the Paris conference. This means concerted action from environmental and energy regulators, and effective pricing for the heaviest polluters to purchase carbon permits and for what consumers pay for energy. The sort of large-scale investments needed in renewable energy, less carbon-intensive energy, energy efficiency and technological innovation will only happen if there are significant and sustained price and regulatory signals from government, coupled with innovations in the market. China’s air pollution crisis should be a core focus of bilateral policy, regulatory and technological effort — not least because it affects us all.

Second, effective trilateral collaboration between the United States, China and India is critical. Although India has been a smaller emitter in relative terms until now, India will pass China’s population in the next decade, and it has barely begun its own industrial revolution. Delhi already has air pollution levels comparable to Beijing. The same type of climate change collaboration on regulation, pricing, technology and investment is needed in this triangular relationship. In this context, we cannot ignore the fact that coal, absent a quantum technological shift, is likely to remain the major fuel for energy generation in China and India through to mid-century. Investment must continue to focus on clean-coal technologies and shale-gas conversion.

Third, any climate change agreement in Paris must ensure that countries actually implement the emissions cuts they commit to. The final accord must agree to a regular review mechanism, full transparency of data and an ability to supplement the Paris agreement with further climate-change action as necessary. Much of the world seems oblivious to international treaty law, but it does respond to concrete environmental action based on that law.

Forging an agreement in Paris will take bold leadership. The people of the world, particularly the young, now look increasingly to the leaders of these great powers to protect our planet before it’s too late for us all.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rudd, Kevin.“Paris Can't Be Another Copenhagen.” The New York Times, May 25, 2015.