Paving the way to Paris COP21

Rafael Leal-Arcas, Queen Mary University of London

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to grow in the world. However, something unheard of in the field of climate change mitigation happened in November 2014. The US and China, together responsible for 44 per cent of global GHG emissions, agreed to reduce their emissions as part of the process towards a new global climate change agreement that is expected to be adopted at COP21 in December 2015 in Paris. Moreover, China is the first emerging economy to announce a date on which it expects its CO2 emissions to peak. This may trigger other major developing countries to do the same.


China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2, accounting for nearly 28 per cent of total global carbon emissions. As a result, China is crucial for the success of COP21. What is absurd is that the big titan is not bound by the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its GHG emissions: China is not an Annex I country. If we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, we must have China on board in Paris, without which it is difficult to continue effectively with climate change negotiations.

In November 2014, China launched a new era of climate diplomacy by announcing its commitment to mitigate climate change. China intends to achieve a peaking of CO2 emissions by around 2030 and to increase the share of renewable energy in primary energy consumption to around 20 per cent by 2030.

What does not vary, however, is Beijing’s bargaining power at the COP21. China sees that any global climate deal to be reached in Paris must preserve its sovereignty, with no interference whatsoever in domestic affairs. For this reason, if the right conditions for a global deal are set ahead of the Paris summit, Beijing is more likely to support a new global climate regime that goes towards a voluntary national pledge and review system.

The US: Climate diplomacy with China will make a difference

The US is the world’s second-largest emitter of CO2, accounting for 14 per cent of total global carbon emissions. The US’ climate change mitigation record is far from enviable. Washington has traditionally been in favour only of voluntary actions, and is the only country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. With the 1997 Byrd-Hagel Senate resolution, it was made clear that the US would not ratify any climate deal that threatens US economic competitiveness and lacks emissions reduction targets for major developing countries. In this light, legal symmetry between all major emitters appears to be a fundamental principle for the US.

US carbon emissions have decreased, largely due to the financial crisis (given the low level of economic growth) and the expanded use of natural gas. In addition, in November 2014, the US announced that it intends to achieve economy-wide targets of reducing GHG emissions by 26-28 per cent below the 2005 level by 2025.

The US can influence and push China’s international climate change policy in three ways: first, setting an example; second, helping China reduce abatement costs; and third, promoting China’s concern over the climate change issue. The US is a crucial country in climate change negotiations because it has both the technology and the financial capacity to reduce GHG emissions. Having the US playing the role of climate ambassador to China would certainly expedite the creation of a future global climate change agreement in Paris.


COP21 may not lead to a climate agreement that will keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, but it may lead to an agreement that will start to decarbonise the economy. This agreement could have a set of principles and could be based on contributions to mitigate climate change both from developed and developing countries. Irrespective of its future legal name (a treaty, protocol, or agreement), we need an effective agreement on climate change mitigation, in which the international community will agree on the following: (1) subsidies for fossil fuels will need to eventually disappear; (2) countries will reduce their carbon emissions at their own pace and in their own way; and (3) countries will measure their performance on carbon emissions reduction.

With political will, some sort of success in Paris may transpire. Bilateral negotiations are crucial to the success of multilateral climate negotiations. China and the US are key to any meaningful progress in climate change mitigation. Both China and the US are keen to achieve a climate change agreement. The increasing commitment on climate change mitigation from the US and the good relations between China and the US on climate change will certainly help towards the creation of a climate agreement in Paris in 2015. Nevertheless, although there is improvement, it is far too slow for what is needed.

The new regime is moving towards a voluntary national pledge and review system, which deviates from the European Union’s desire for a legally binding climate treaty, getting any Paris deal closer to the US’ and China’s vision of soft global governance for climate change.