After Donald Trump’s outrageous claim that India tried to extract ‘billions and billions and billions of dollars’ to sign the Paris Agreement, Vice President Mike Pence has chipped in with his own piece of fake news. He asserts that the Agreement has given India and China a virtual ‘free pass’, costing the United States 6.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next 25 years.
Apparently, even passable attention to the accuracy of data is not required to build a false political narrative today. Sadly, this strategy seems to be working in a large number of cases. But, the sheer number of scholars from multiple disciplines working on climate change should have been enough reason to be a bit more careful in dishing out numbers on this topic. Unsurprisingly therefore, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement have been met with many responses. These responses range from comments from political leaders from within and outside the US to climate scientists and even comedy show hosts who have ridiculed the Trump administration's attempt to provide alternate climate science, and climate data.
20 years ago when the United States decided against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the reasons given were almost exactly the same – competitive disadvantage to the US in allowing India and China to remain outside the ambit of a mitigation regime. While it was true that only the developed countries were ‘allocated’ mitigation targets 20 years ago, the same argument today holds no water as the architecture of the Paris Agreement is completely different. No one is ‘allocated’ any targets under the Paris Agreement. All countries, developed and less-developed, have proposed their own mitigation targets based on their own assessment of their current ‘national circumstances’ and are under no legal obligation to meet even these self-determined mitigation goals. So it can be argued that due to the refusal of developed countries, the United States a leader amongst them, to even discuss the question of equity or historical responsibility, all countries – not just China and India – have been given a ‘free pass’, unfortunately at the cost of the future of the planet. But within this context of weak self-determined mitigation goals, it is important to look at what exactly each of the three countries mentioned in Mike Pence’s recent statement – the US, China, and India – have contributed towards a solution to climate change and what they had proposed to contribute in the future.
The total cumulative carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion alone, emitted by the world between 1870 and 2014, amounts to about 400 Giga tonnes of carbon (Gt of Carbon) [4 x 109 tonnes of carbon]. Out of this, the United States has emitted about 115 Gt of carbon (31%). China and India have emitted 39 Gt of carbon (11%) and 11 Gt of carbon (3%) respectively.
However, the Paris Agreement, by making no mention of the importance of historical responsibility, forced the focus of the discussions on only present and future emissions, in effect ignoring the fact that most of the existing carbon in the atmosphere has been put there by the developed countries, with the United States being the biggest 'contributor'. The US was the key player in bypassing historical responsibility in the Paris Agreement.
But even if we look at only the existing emission trends and translate the proposed mitigation efforts by each of these countries to what they would cumulatively mean, Mike Pence's arguments are quite specious. Before it withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the mitigation effort proposed by the United States to be achieved by 2025 would imply an emission of about 19 Gt of carbon between 2013 and 2025. The mitigation effort proposed by India on the other hand would imply an emission of 18-21 Gt of carbon (depending on the level of GDP growth) between 2013 and 2030. Even had the United States not withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, they would have emitted more than India in the future, even based on the mitigation efforts each country had self-assessed and proposed. China on the other hand will cumulatively still emit more than both India and the United States, but in the renewable energy sector it has done far more than the US. The total installed capacity for wind energy systems in China in 2015 was 145 GW against 74 GW in the United States. The installed capacity for solar systems in China in the same year was 28 GW against 18 GW in the United States. This is despite the fact that the per capita GDP of the United States is four times higher than that of China. We have left out here the issue of equity or per capita emissions, by which the US would be way ahead of China and India as an emitter. Equity was another casualty of the US intransigence during the negotiations of the Paris Agreement. The allegation of a ‘free pass’ for India and China therefore does not pass even cursory scrutiny.
Even as its efforts so far have been far less than those required, to add insult to injury the US is now withdrawing from the Agreement, as it finds no rationale in why it should not be allowed to dump even more carbon in the atmosphere. So the demands of American capital trump any concerns about the future of the planet.
It is unfortunate that the only political response to Donald Trump’s statement has come from India’s Minister from External Affairs reiterating India’s commitment to saving the planet from irreversible climate change and attempting to reinforce the point by referring to India’s spiritual commitment towards nature that goes back 5000 years. From the glorification of poverty by converting India’s low carbon footprint into a moral checkmate, to harking back to the Vedic worship of the elements as evidence of commitment to protect the climate, Indian policymakers have tried very hard to appear defiant and resolute without ever concretely arguing for a way in which to operationalise equity in climate action. It remains to be seen if this will change in the face of the renewed attack from the United States.