The US government submission to the UNFCCC on how it plans to control greenhouse gas emissions is the same as it announced in a deal with China last year. It is not ambitious enough, and points to a weak deal at the Paris climate summit

The countries that have submitted their INDCs in the first quarter of 2015 (Image by Climate Central)

The countries that have submitted their INDCs in the first quarter of 2015 (Image by Climate Central)

Everybody following negotiations to a global climate deal – scheduled to be finalized at the Paris climate summit this December – has been waiting eagerly to see what the US government is planning.

The plan came in the form of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on March 31, the informal deadline by which all countries were supposed to submit their INDCs.

Since the start of the Industrial Age, the US has released the maximum carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Today it remains the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) gases after China, and its per capita emission is many times that of China.

In its INDC submission, the US has committed to reduce its GHG emissions by 26-28% by 2025, compared to the 2005 level. This is exactly what it had announced in a deal with China last year. The submission makes it clear that this is an economy wide target. It also states the potential policy tools that will aid to achieve such a reduction target.

Looking at the numbers

These numbers have to be seen in the context of the overall debate over emission reductions and effort sharing between countries.

The first substantial declaration of emission reduction by the US came in 2009, when it pledged at the Copenhagen climate summit that it would reduce its GHG emissions by 17% by 2020, compared to 2005.

If the base year is moved to 1990, this would mean a reduction of only 3%. The Kyoto Protocol – which the US signed but did not ratify – required the country to reduce its emissions by 7%, compared to 1990.

The current US INDC target is consistent with its self-declared long term goal of 83% emission reduction by 2050, compared to 2005. A number of climate science studies have observed that this INDC target is heavily dependent on changes in land use, rather than industrial emissions. At any rate, there is serious opacity about the way this target will be achieved.

According to an analysis by Climate Action Tracker, if the estimate based on official data reported in 2009 is applied, the 2020 target will probably translate to a 3% increase in industrial emissions relative to 1990 levels. But if the estimate is based on data reported in 2010, this would mean a 3% reduction below 1990 levels in 2020.

There is a clear contradiction here, so a major issue is transparency of accounting.

Year after year, the UN Environment Programme has produced a report detailing the gap between emission reduction commitments by various governments and the reduction required to keep average global warming within two degrees Celsius. The current gap is around 40%. There is a very strong possibility that the US INDC will not meet the requirements of science.

Different scientific models have also found that the world’s carbon space is shrinking at a rate faster than predicted earlier. Clearly, developed countries – which are required to be leaders in emission reduction actions – are not playing their role. The role played by the US is the major reason for this belief.

Larger debate on INDC

At climate negotiations, a serious source of worry for many developing countries is the non-inclusion of data in support of climate actions in developed countries. And this is especially true on other aspects of action – adaptation to climate change, finance and technology transfer from rich to poor nations. Developed countries see INDCs as information about mitigation actions only.

This has a bearing on the fundamental understanding of the UN framework convention itself. Developed countries including the US have been laggards in providing climate finance right now, while they seek mitigation actions from all countries for the post-2020 world. Several analysts have observed that rich countries have made cosmetic changes in budgetary allocations so that existing support to developing countries was renamed climate finance. Even then, they were not able to meet the target of $30 billion by 2012.

Providing information on financing in the INDCs would have ensured transparency. By not doing so, the US has indicated that it chooses to ignore the demand of developing countries. It is easy to foresee that this will be a major stumbling block during the coming negotiations.

Implication for India’s INDC

Since the US-China deal in November 2014, India is under tacit pressure to come up with specific emission control numbers. The last time this happened was before the Copenhagen summit, when India announced that the intensity of its emissions would be reduced by 20-25% by 2020 compared to 2005. The Indian government has made no announcement so far, though officials say US President Barack Obama tried very hard to get India to make an announcement when he visited New Delhi this January.

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has outlined the contents of an Indian INDC, but has not given a date by which this will be submitted to UNFCCC. His ministry has asked two think tanks to prepare roadmaps towards a low-carbon development goal. Bureaucrats say once they receive these reports, the INDC will be finalised, probably sometime in October.

What India will do, according to the minister and senior officials, is to submit two options in its INDC – one, what it plans to do with domestic resources; two, what it can do if it gets the finances and technology transfers it wants.

Going by current indications, the Indian INDC is likely to contain emissions intensity reduction targets rather than emissions reduction targets. Since India is now the third largest GHG emitter in the world, this is unlikely to satisfy developed countries. They have sought economy wide reduction targets which are sector-specific. It is unlikely that India will submit any such thing, which means there is another source of confrontation at the Paris summit.

At climate negotiations, India has followed the lead of China for years, and has insisted that developing countries should not be asked to make sacrifices for a problem created by developed countries, especially when the poor nations still suffer from acute energy poverty.

But with China announcing that its emissions will peak by 2030, this tactic will be far less effective than before. At the negotiations, India plans to tell the world clearly that it is at a very different level of development, compared to China. Indian diplomats need to start gathering support from other developing countries for this stand.

Impact on Paris deal

A climate deal in Paris is still far off, but is visible now. The question is, will this deal be able to take the world on a two-degree pathway? If we analyse the major ones among the 35 INDCs submitted so far, the one submitted by the European Union falls short of that. The Swiss INDC is in line but at the lower range of the pathway. The US INDC falls far short. So does the INDC of Russia, the world’s fourth largest GHG emitter.

Two-thirds of the developed countries have now submitted their INDCs. With these submissions, the two-degree ceiling will be breached. So there are two options. Either the breach will happen, or developing countries will have to put much more on the table. They are very unlikely to do that. All that will happen is a lot of finger pointing and weak deal. The world is on a race to the bottom.

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