Paris: The New Geopolitics of Climate Change

President Barack Obama walks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be photographed by media at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, January 25, 2015.

This column contains a correction.

The geopolitics of climate change is shifting. As a recent series of climate pledges from developing countries has clearly demonstrated, climate action is no longer in the purview of developed countries alone.

When the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, was finalized in 1992,* it identified the countries that were then developed and assigned them a separate set of obligations. Those countries had a separate emissions reduction objective, for example, and a separate system of reporting. In addition, industrialized countries were expected to provide climate finance for developing countries.

But the global development landscape and the global emissions landscape have changed. China now outstrips the United States in greenhouse gas pollution, and other developing countries—such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico—are among the 10 largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

In December, the parties to the UNFCCC will convene in Paris to strike a new international climate agreement to rein in carbon pollution and build global resilience to the effects of climate change. As the Paris meeting approaches, the set of countries taking on rigorous commitments to address climate change has shifted along with the shift in global emissions.

In November 2014, China made a joint announcement with the United States in which it pledged to peak CO2 emissions around 2030 and to increase its use of renewable energy to account for 20 percent of energy consumption by the same year. In April of this year, Mexico committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent below a business-as-usual projection by 2030 and peak its emissions by 2026. On September 25, the United States and China again issued a joint statement on climate change, with China announcing a national emissions trading system to be launched in 2017. On September 28, Brazil committed to an absolute reduction in emissions of 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. On October 1, India unconditionally committed to a 33 percent to 35 percent reduction below 2005 levels in emissions relative to gross domestic product by 2030. India also announced that it would seek to increase its use of nonfossil energy to account for 40 percent of electric power capacity by 2030, in part through its program to increase solar capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2022.

Developing countries are also contributing to international climate finance, which not long ago was in the domain of industrialized donors. The nascent Green Climate Fund, which will help developing countries transition to pathways of low-carbon growth, has seen pledges not only from traditional contributors to climate finance—such as the United States, Japan, and the European Union—but also from developing countries, such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. Last week, China pledged more than $3 billion in climate finance through the China South-South Cooperation Fund on Climate Change.

A common argument against the United States pursuing domestic emissions reductions or providing international climate finance is that these efforts will be ineffectual against a backdrop of exponentially increasing emissions from fast-developing economies. Any force that argument once had is draining in the face of climate action from developing countries.

The Paris agreement will cement the new geopolitics of climate action. In the Paris regime, all countries, developed and developing alike, will be expected to commit to emissions reductions and upgrade their commitments over time. Importantly, negotiators from the United States are advocating for a single system of reporting for all countries, with flexibility and support for developing countries that may require it. The agreement will, of course, still respect that countries have different levels of responsibility for and different capacities to address climate change.

Opposition to the Paris agreement amounts to support for an old regime of obligations in a new landscape of carbon pollution. The agreement will be central to the ability of the United States and all parties to monitor emissions, hold emitters accountable, and leverage reductions. Given that carbon pollution from any country has detrimental health, security, and economic effects that cross its borders, the Paris agreement—and the shift in the geopolitics of climate action that it establishes—should be a pact that inspires broad bipartisan support.

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress, where she works on international climate policy.

* Correction, October 9, 2015: This column has been updated to clarify that the UNFCCC was finalized in 1992.