China, India and the climate

Activists protesting against polluters hold banners at the Climate Generations Areas, part of the COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015 in Le Bourget, north of Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

The world’s eyes are once again on Paris barely two weeks after the Islamic State terrorist raid there. Heads of state have gathered from around the globe to propose a new treaty to combat global warming. And according to such luminaries as President Barack Obama and India’s Premier Narendra Modi, the conference could be critical to the fate of our planet.

As befits such a sweeping claim, the opening of the two-week conference has been accompanied by visual and verbal drama, including promises from 185 countries to reduce carbon emissions by billions of tons per year. Meanwhile, there have been demands from developing countries that they be paid trillions of dollars in compensation from rich countries.

India’s leader placed the blame for global warming on “the industrial age powered by fossil fuel” with consequences evident today “especially on the lives of the poor” and on developing nations that are “still seeking space to grow.”

President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that developed nations should take the lead in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Obama said the United States “recognizes our role in creating this problem.” If nations do not act, he said, the world faces a frightening future: “Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow. Political disruptions that trigger new conflict, and even more floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.”

At the same time, advocates of strong action to curb carbon emissions criticized the voluntary targets set by participants, saying that if fully implemented they would reduce projected carbon emissions by 2030 by less than 15 percent, far short of the 33 percent reduction they claim is required to prevent the most severe consequences of global warming.

Climate activists also want a legally binding set of targets, something that is unlikely to emerge from this conference.

A major reason why carbon emissions will continue to grow under the new targets, and why there will probably be no binding commitments, is found in the remarks of India’s prime minister on the right of developing countries to continue to use fossil energy to improve living standards.

India is the world’s third largest emitter of carbon gases. China, which says its carbon emissions will continue to climb until 2030, is the largest. The U.S., which has been cutting its emissions, ranks second.

Pledges by European countries and the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions by shifting to more costly renewable energy sources will be more than offset by the emissions from rapidly growing economies in Asia. Over the long term, treaties will not suffice to reduce, or even stop the rise, in emissions. Market-based incentives must play a role in any realistic approach.

Some climate activists warn that global temperatures will rise by 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not curbed. If temperatures rise that much, glacial melting will increase sea levels by three feet or more, threatening coastal communities everywhere.

However, that figure is at the top of a range predicted last year by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global scientific body that periodically reports on the state of climate science. The IPCC also reported that temperatures might rise as little as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The wide range reflects the lack of precise scientific agreement on the extent of the effects of accumulating greenhouse gases, with the higher figure representing a view that there will be very large feedback effects that amplify global warming.

The bet by the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, is that the world is not headed toward climate Armageddon. But it clearly suits their purposes to have the world think that it is to give them leverage on this issue.

Nevertheless, further delay in restricting global carbon emissions is a risky wager of its own.

And lowering that hazard will require both effective international agreements and market-driven incentives.