Home » Environment » Battle lines drawn: we break down the US-India face off ahead of #COP21

Battle lines drawn: we break down the US-India face off ahead of #COP21

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 10:42 IST

Global warming is upon us. While 2014 was the hottest year on record, the UN's weather organisation has declared that 2015 was even hotter -- caused principally by global warming.

Wait, it gets worse. As per their calculations, 2016 is likely to be even hotter.

How appropriate then, that in a few days over 190 nations will meet in Paris to figure out the best way to cut down global warming. You'd expect them to be prepared to act like a team and find a final solution.

Read- The world is talking about this: the A-Z of #COP21

Instead, battle lines are being drawn. Specifically between two important countries attending the summit -- the United States and India. Sadly, it's not even over fine legal details or diplomatic positions. It deals with questions as basic as whether or not India is a big enough carbon emitter.

How did this come up before the summit?

A war of words broke out between the US Secretary of State (i.e. Foreign Minister) John Kerry and India's Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. While Kerry said India will pose a "challenge" in reaching a conclusive deal at Paris, Javadekar hit back by calling Kerry's comments "untrue, unfair and uncalled for".

The rift between the two countries in fact represents the fault lines between the developed and the developing world. And these are the very issues which will make or break the Paris summit.

Here's a breakdown of the contentious issues:

Is India really a big emitter?

The context: While India plays the "poor nation" card, the US emphasises the fact the India is the fourth largest carbon emitter and insists that it be treated like the top three emitters (that's China, US, EU). This could mean asking India to cut more emissions, get a smaller share of climate action funds or even cough up for such funds.

United States: India's carbon emissions are the world's fourth highest in the world. Kerry pointed out how India is increasing its coal consumption, which is not the direction "we ought to be moving in"

India: Although India has the fourth-highest emissions, its share is actually way below the top three. While the top three cause more than half of the world's emissions, India's share is a paltry 6%. Despite a much higher population, India uses just one-third of the coal the US does.

Carbon Budget

The context: Scientists have calculated that the planet can only take about 1000 Gigatons of carbon emissions until 2100. This is called the carbon budget and all countries have to share it. Exceeding this, temperatures will rise beyond 2 degrees Celsius (over pre-industrial levels), causing large scale devastation. Already 400-600 Gigatons have been emitted. If we continue at the present rate, we may overshoot that budget in 10-20 years.

United States: The US has promised that by 2025 its carbon emissions will be about 28% lower than they were in 2005. This translates to emissions of about 5.6 Gigatons annually by that year (which means it will emit 420 Gigatons from 2025-2100). This is the amount of CO2 the entire world is supposed to emit until 2100 to avoid disastrous effects of climate change.

India: India has insisted that it needs to emit more carbon to generate income that will both reduce poverty and help shift to a low-carbon economy (by investing in mass public transport, producing solar cells, etc). For this, India wants the developed world led by the United States to reduce their share of the carbon budget.


The Context: Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) is a principle of equity -- since rich nations emitted a large amount of carbon to earn high incomes, today they are obliged to do more to cut emissions. Poorer countries, with a lower historical share should also cut, but proportionally less. It is the core guiding principle of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- a treaty that is like a constitution for climate negotiations. But the US has been trying to ignore, even rewrite this principle.

Also read: France wants a binding agreement to cut emission. Is the US listening?

United States: The US argues that the "world has changed" since the CBDR principle was adopted in 1992. It means China and India, then considered poor nations, are major emitters now. The last time the US was asked to cut its emissions based on CBDR (through the Kyoto Protocol), it refused to. It supported voluntary emission cuts, which is the norm now.

India: Insists that the CBDR principle is sacrosanct. India's top priority at the Paris Summit is to ensure that the CBDR is retained in the final deal. It emphasises the fact that global warming is caused by carbon already present in the atmosphere. This includes historical emissions, of which the United States has the highest share. Its responsibility to cut down is accordingly higher. India has just a 3% share.


The context: Since the United States and other developed nations have a higher share in causing global warming, they are supposed to help developing countries raise the money necessary to battle the problem. For this purpose, they pledged to give developing nations $100 billion each year until 2020 and set up a Green Climate Fund. But the draft Paris deal tries to "enlarge" the contributors -- a move seen by India as a method to include it as a donor (as opposed to a recipient of the funds).

United States: It committed to mobilise $3 billion (of the total $100 billion) with private sources included. But even the first part of its payment, worth $500 million, was vetoed by the Republican-dominated US Congress. They have vowed to not let such climate finance pass. Sources in the Indian Environment Ministry claim that further funding from the US was to come from the income generated by carbon trading. But since this market failed, its finance has fallen through.

India: Thinks there is lack of commitment among rich countries, particularly the US, in parting with climate finance. It will vehemently oppose becoming a donor in the green climate fund. It is also against developed countries counting their existing developmental aid as climate finance. It wants the climate money to be additional to the existing aid.

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First published: 27 November 2015, 6:47 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.