The legal basis​ of international policy on global warming is the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the objective of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions at ‘a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. Since it came into force in 1994, there has been an annual conference of the parties to the convention. At the conference in Japan in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, which set binding emissions targets for the developed nations. Its ‘first commitment period’, during which the targets were supposed to be met, ended in 2012. But no progress had been made: global emissions were more than 50 per cent higher than they had been in 1990.

The future of climate change policy rests on this year’s conference, which will start in Paris at the end of November. The hope is that an agreement can be reached on how to achieve the unrealised global reductions. In preparation, countries have been asked to say what they would like to see in the agreement, based on what they intend to do about their own emissions. Most of them have now submitted their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs). In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change, which effectively determines national policy, has based its ambitious commitment to decarbonisation on the belief that agreement in Paris will create the circumstances in which it will be possible to realise such a commitment. (It would not of course be sensible for the UK to pursue tough targets unilaterally when it is responsible for only 2 per cent of global emissions.) Some have found reason for optimism in the fact that China and India have submitted INDCs. It is generally acknowledged that unless China, with its enormous but still developing economy, alters its trajectory – it is already the world’s largest emitter although it still has a low level of per capita emissions – what the rest of the world does is irrelevant.

The INDCs in general have been criticised for their failure to be nearly ambitious enough: they would not keep warming below the 2°C increase on pre-industrial levels which is the standard often used. China’s INDC in particular, with one exception that I shall come back to, says nothing specific about absolute emissions reductions. Absolute emissions – the actual quantity of greenhouse gases – must be distinguished from the carbon intensity of emissions. Intensity is a measure of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in achieving a given increase in GDP. Broadly speaking, absolute emissions and economic growth are strongly correlated, but technological advances slowly reduce the amount of emissions needed to generate a given amount of growth: that is, advances in technology tend to reduce carbon intensity. China intends ‘to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030’, and to ‘lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 per cent to 65 per cent’.

China’s economic growth will indeed result in a reduction of carbon intensity as new plant is installed and old plant retired. But reductions in carbon intensity can be perfectly consistent with unbounded growth in absolute emissions. China’s growth targets are such that it won’t only be improving its industrial plant, but also building a huge amount more. As it reduces its carbon intensity, its absolute emissions will rise; the faster the fall in intensity, the more its absolute emissions will have increased. China’s reference to peak emissions and its ambitious intensity target (60-65 per cent is a big, positive-looking number) give the game away: this is not a statement of intention to reduce absolute emissions, but one that makes clear that China will increase them vastly until around 2030.

The one thing China’s INDC does say about absolute emissions is that the developed countries should commit to ‘ambitious economy-wide absolute quantified emissions reduction targets’, while the developing countries need only ‘undertake diversifying enhanced mitigation actions’. This goes to the foundation of climate change policy, which is based on establishing the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ of the developed and developing countries. The burden of responsibility, both for historical emissions and for making reductions now, has been placed on the former as a matter of ‘climate justice’. Commitments to make absolute reductions were placed on developed countries at Kyoto, but none has ever been placed on developing countries. The major industrialising countries (MICs), such as China and India, are classified as developing countries, which has effectively made global reductions impossible.

Article 4(7) of the UNFCCC provides that ‘the extent to which developing country parties will effectively implement … the Convention … will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country parties.’ Since emissions reductions involve immense economic costs, this essentially means that no limits can be placed on the emissions of developing countries. Their responsibility to reduce emissions isn’t ‘differentiated’ so much as non-existent. Subsequent climate change negotiations have reinforced this position, and it is stated as forthrightly as it ever has been in China’s INDC. When the MICs’ refusal to adopt reductions targets became clear at the Copenhagen conference in 2009, people began to realise that directing criticism solely at the developed countries, particularly the US, as a result of its failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, was fruitless. But all the MICs have done is stick to what was agreed in 1992.

By insisting once again that they don’t have a responsibility to reduce emissions, China and India have ensured that the Paris conference will not reach the hoped-for agreement. Global emissions reductions have been impossible for more than a quarter-century and will continue to be impossible, for the very good reason that this is what was agreed in the original convention. Numerous near irrelevant agreements and declarations of intent will no doubt be made in Paris, obscuring the failure to reach any agreement on global reductions. International policy has so far been based on the premise that mitigation is the wisest course, but it is time for those committed to environmental intervention to abandon the idea of mitigation in favour of adaptation to climate change’s effects.

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Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016

David Campbell argues that we should abandon our attempts to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions (LRB, 5 November 2015). He claims that the faster China reduces its carbon emissions per unit of GDP (‘emissions intensity’), the more its absolute emissions will rise. This would be true if China were simply adding new plant powered by fossil fuels, albeit more efficiently. It is not so clearly true, though, if a substantial portion of the new plant is powered by renewable forms of energy or nuclear energy, or if the amount of energy required per unit of GDP falls significantly. Both of these developments are said to have been taking place in China.

Campbell raises the prospect of ‘unbounded growth’ in China’s emissions, presumably until the intended peak in 2030. But a report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change looking at the effect of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions supposes that, where a country states a year by which emissions are intended to peak, the annual growth rate in emissions decreases steadily from its present value to zero in the stated year. Such a transition, to a form of growth with stabilised or reducing emissions, seems more plausible than one in which emissions grow uncontrolledly, then suddenly stop growing at all.

Peter Gillott

Vol. 40 No. 7 · 5 April 2018

David Campbell writes to remind us of his view that global efforts to limit climate change by constraining carbon emissions are proving impotent in the face of China’s industrialisation (Letters, 8 March). Those who recall his piece in the LRB of 5 November 2015 will not be surprised that his answer to our failure so far to have done enough is that we should do less in future. Forget mitigation, he says. We should focus on adaptation instead.

In 2018 it should no longer be necessary to state that this a false choice. Mitigation and adaptation are no more fungible than are cause and effect. Some global temperature rise in the coming decades is now inevitable so adaptation will be needed – quite desperately in some parts of the world. But adaptation can only ever offer a partial and temporary response to the effects of climate change. Let’s imagine that the 145 million people living three feet or less above sea level could all be protected from the sea’s predicted encroachment by the end of this century. We will still need to adapt to more intense heatwaves, extreme rainfall events and hurricanes, and to the disruption to the world’s bread baskets, to the supply of water, and to the distribution of biological vectors of disease, with all the effects these things will have on human and animal populations. Are we to believe that such effects would be remotely manageable in a world where, without mitigation, warming was left to rise inexorably; not only past 2°C, but to 5, 6, even 7°C and beyond? It is a long-recognised moral hazard of overemphasising the utility of adaptation that it can deter action on tackling the root cause of climate change.

Jonathan Church
Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

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