“A game of Mad Libs.” That’s how an anonymous negotiator predicted the climate change agreement, which was finalized yesterday in Lima, Peru, would come out. It’s a bit flippant to liken the document designed to prevent an environmental dystopia to a children’s word game. When presented with a blank space for their carbon emissions commitments, one wonders whether climate change foot-draggers like Australia or Canada will be tempted to write in “gonads” or something similar.
Nevertheless, a climate change Mad Lib is essentially what we got—and that’s not all bad. There was never any chance that the midlevel apparatchiks from 196 countries would hammer out a grand climate change bargain, especially since past summit failures left them with no obvious starting point. Instead, they drafted a set of ideas and left many blanks (read the full agreement here) in the hopes that when the nations come together in Paris next November, they will have the framework necessary to replace the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Let’s focus on one particular set of blanks: carbon commitments. Beginning early next year (and hopefully ending long before the Paris summit), the countries must all submit pledges to reduce their carbon emissions by certain amounts.
The United States and China have already made their initial moves. The United States committed to a hard target—26 percent to 28 percent less carbon emitted by 2025 than in 2005. China was slightly less committal and provided no absolute maximum, only agreeing to reach peak carbon (at an undisclosed level) by 2030. Both nations will have to get more aggressive and specific if there is any hope of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the point at which climate change will likely become a runaway feedback loop.
Recognizing the need for detailed promises, the Lima negotiators banned some of the deceptive tactics that plagued pledges made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. For example, countries can no longer promise to lower carbon pollution below a “business as usual” level without defining what a “business as usual” scenario means. (South Africa and Indonesia used this trick in Copenhagen.)
Still, there is significant wiggle room for nations to make wholly inadequate commitments under the Lima agreement. To see how pledges can be made to look better than they really are, you only need to look at the Copenhagen commitments of India and Russia.
The world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, India committed to reduce its carbon emissions per dollar of gross domestic product 20 percent to 25 percent by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels). If India were to fulfill its pledge, its annual emissions savings by 2020 would be roughly equivalent to turning off the economy of the United Kingdom.
But don’t get too excited just yet. First, there are serious doubts about whether India will meet its goal. A recent study by Imperial College London concluded that the actual emissions decline would be closer to 13 percent. Second, the GDP that the country is basing its carbon reductions on has grown at an average of 6.6 percent over recent years.
If that rate continues, the country’s economic output will nearly triple by 2030. So a 25 percent drop in carbon intensity would still bring emissions levels that are almost twice as high as they are today. You can tinker with those numbers a bit by reducing the GDP-growth assumptions, but it’s very difficult to see how India’s Copenhagen commitment would put us on a path to keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.
It’s hard not to have sympathy for the subcontinental behemoth. India emits a paltry 1.7 tons of CO2 per person each year, compared to 6.2 tons per person in China, 17.6 tons per person in the United States, and an incredible 40.3 tons per person in Qatar. As of 2011, nearly one in four Indians were living on less than $1.25 per day. The country’s leaders justifiably wonder why they’re being asked to help solve a problem they did not, for the most part, create—especially when the solution could complicate efforts to bring their people out of poverty.
India is also making strides when it comes to renewable energy, with a plan to have its solar-energy capacity to hit 100 gigawatts by 2022. “The 100-gigawatt solar-energy target—almost half of India’s total energy-generating capacity in 2013—is a tremendous opportunity to expand energy access through clean energy,” says Anjali Jaiswal, director of the India initiative at NRDC (which publishes Earthwire).
Renewable-energy achievements are definitely a good thing, but India is simultaneously planning to build 455 coal-fired power plants. These would emit carbon dioxide for at least 30 years, and for over a century, that pollution will warm the atmosphere—whether there are solar panels on the ground or not. Renewable energy helps, but cutting the total carbon output is where it counts.
In September, the country’s environment minister said India would not offer a plan to cut carbon emissions ahead of the Paris summit in 2015. In December, though, the Business Standard reported that it could unveil a plan in January. (The U.S.-China agreement probably forced India’s hand on the issue.)
At no. 5, Russia sits just behind India on the list of top greenhouse gas emitters. Unlike India, Russia committed to absolute carbon reductions in Copenhagen, pledging to bring emissions 15 percent to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Last year, Moscow went all in, promising to hit the steeper 25 percent reduction goal. Russia even appears to be on track to meet this commitment.
Sounds amazing, da? Nyet. It’s no coincidence that Russia used 1990 as its benchmark year. If you’re my age or older, you may remember what was happening in Russia in 1991—the Soviet government fell to pieces, and the economy went into the tank. While India's greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily for years, Russia's emissions in 1990 represented a relative high point; its emissions bounced along at lower levels throughout the '90s and even into the new millennium.
Viewed from this perspective, Russia’s Copenhagen promise doesn’t seem so impressive. In fact, if it fulfill its commitment in 2020, it will still be emitting about 16 percent more greenhouse gas that year than it did in 2010.
Russia’s recent statements haven’t been heartening, either. In September, a government official suggested that the 2030 target could be identical to or only marginally less than the 2020 target—a 25 percent to 30 percent cut in carbon pollution, based on 1990 levels.
Russia doesn’t have the same excuses as India. The average citizen is responsible for 12.2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, putting it on par with many industrialized nations. It also has had a developed economy for many decades, with significantly lower poverty rates than India.
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How the nearly 200 nations will choose to fill in the blanks in the Lima agreement will determine our planet’s average temperatures in 20, 50, and 100 years. This is perhaps the highest-stakes Mad Libs game of all time. What happens in the coming months as the carbon pledges trickle in will reveal whether we’re taking climate change seriously, or just [verb ending in -ing] around.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.