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#COP21: The US-France face-off. And how it affects India

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 9:02 IST

France vs US

  • The world needs legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emission
  • France and developing countries root for binding goals
  • US, the second-highest emitter, is unwilling to commit

More in the story

  • Why does US shy away from legally binding targets?
  • What will this mean for global warming?
  • Will the Paris summit achieve anything?

The United States and France clashed over a crucial agreement that could save the world from climate change. While France wants the December Paris climate summit to lead to a legally binding agreement, the United States doesn't.

Not having a binding deal means nothing stops countries from emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG).

It will take the air out of the Paris summit, considered the last chance for the world to take any concrete steps to rein in global warming. An agreement there is meant to last 15 years - from 2020 to 2035.

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The European Union and many developing countries have supported a strong deal, but worryingly the US has historically been able to bully its way out. And it has the second-highest GHG emission in the world.

This makes a meaningful climate change deal seem elusive.

Why is it important?

Cutting GHG emissions, which cause global warming and changes climate, has been the central purpose of all climate summits. Ahead of Paris, each country had declared voluntary commitments for cutting such emissions.

The US committed that by 2025 it will cut GHG equivalent 26-28% of its emissions in 2005. But the total of all nations' cuts have been insufficient to meet the goal of keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius (pre-industrial levels).

By one estimate, the total cuts should have been 25% higher. If there is no legally binding agreement, countries can choose to not follow even these emission cuts.

"Not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto or something" - John Kerry

This affects India. It is in our interests that large emitters like the US, which have already achieved a high standard of living, take serious climate actions.

This would reduce global warming and give space for countries like India to emit a little more to grow. Even to transition to a eco-friendly green economy, some emissions leg-room is necessary.

The US position

The Big A has ruled out supporting a legally binding deal among countries that would define exactly by how much each would cut GHG emissions. Secretary of State John Kerry said this in a recent interview to The Financial Times magazine. There is "definitively not going to be a treaty . They're not going to be legally binding reduction targets like Kyoto or something," he is reported to have said.

The Kyoto Protocol is a climate action agreement in force since 2005 and will expire in 2020. It laid out country-wise objectives on cutting GHGs so that global warming is kept in check.

It was signed at a historic summit in 1997. The US did sign it then, but never actually ratified it. Being an industrialised country with high income, it was expected to make higher emission cuts (in fact reduce its total emissions), something the country has not agreed to do.

In a way, Kerry's remarks appear to signal that the American position from Kyoto will continue at Paris. According to Financial Times, this is because the Obama government expects opposition to such a deal from the Republican-controlled Senate.

Hollande's strong reaction

Responding to Kerry's remarks, French President Francois Hollande said "if there is not a binding accord, there will not be an accord".

The French foreign minister has indicated that the country will push for a legally binding deal. The EU as well as developing countries, including China and India, are known to favour such a deal.

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Experts said the American position is opposite to what it stood for at the 2011 climate summit in Durban. That is where countries decided that they will agree to a legally binding deal at the Paris summit.

At Durban, the US insisted on such a legally binding deal. Its U-turn now is due to political compulsions back home.

"It looks like the legality of the climate deal will depend on the political situation in the US. The backtracking shows the US highhandedness in climate negotiations. But they need to realise that it's not their power but their historical responsibility that is necessary," said Harjeet Singh, climate policy manager at ActionAid International.

In the backdrop of an already watered-down system of emission cuts (that are voluntarily decided by countries instead of being internationally determined), the American U-turn is "saddening", Singh added.

Some hope

Even without an internationally legally binding agreement, the Paris summit could lead to a good enough deal - where countries agree to have domestic legislation that ensures their voluntary commitments are followed.

If this too doesn't happen, the third option is for the Paris summit to lead to an agreement on the processes that countries should follow to monitor and review their climate actions.

A Republican-dominated Senate may tie Obama's hands at #COP21 #Paris2015

This would be the weakest of all possible outcomes from Paris, and the one the United States may push for, according to Arjuna Srinidhi, programme manager - climate change at the Centre for Science and Environment.

"If not the third possibility, the United States could demand an outcome that is a middle path between that and the second option," Srinidhi said.

In that sense, both the American and the French positions could be right in their own ways and lead to a meaningful outcome, if not the most effective.

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First published: 16 November 2015, 5:29 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.