Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Climate Change and Paris 2015 − Pessimism or Cautious Optimism?

Frank Incropera

Polluting Photo: Agustin Ruiz via Creative Commons.

Pollution. Photo: Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons.

Global warming and climate change are not just national problems, but are transnational with solutions requiring collaboration among all nations.

The framework for seeking such solutions was established in 1992 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with the solutions themselves to be formulated by the 196 member nations of the Conference of Parties. The COP has met annually since 1995, and will convene in Paris for its 21st meeting.

A key parameter is the threshold of approximately 2°C, beyond which an increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature would have serious, potentially unmanageable consequences. Yet, despite 20 previous meetings, the COP has made little progress in altering progression to this threshold, which could be reached by mid-century (Incropera, 2016, pp. 161-177).

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the average temperature continue to rise, while the effects of climate change become ever more evident and destructive. Will the Paris meeting suffer the same fate? Perhaps not.

Some cause for optimism emerged in November, 2014 when the world’s two largest emitters agreed to substantive action − China by restraining growth in its emissions and achieving a peak by 2030 and the US by achieving a 26 to 28% reduction by 2025. By themselves, the measures fall far short of what is needed to avoid the threshold, but the agreement between the two nations – one developing and the other developed – is historic and provides a template for other nations to follow.

Paris: Conference of Parties 2015

In the run-up to the Paris meeting, member nations of the COP were asked to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) they would make to curtail GHG emissions by 2030. By November 16, 134 INDCs had been submitted by 161 nations representing more than 80% of the COP and more than 90% of circa-2010 global emissions (UNFCC, 2015a). The commitments typically involve absolute reductions for developed nations or reductions per unit of economic activity for developing nations.

The extent to which nations responded and the commitments manifested by the INDCs are encouraging, but before hopes are raised too high, two questions should be addressed.

1. If all of the INDCs are fully implemented, would the threat of surpassing the 2°C threshold be eliminated?
2. What are prospects that the INDCs will, in fact, be fully implemented?

The answer to the first question is no! There is a high probability that the threshold will be exceeded.

Global emissions will continue to increase, although the rate of growth is projected to decrease by roughly one-third. Average per capita emissions are also projected to decrease, but only slightly, leaving 2030 emissions of approximately 5 tonnes of CO2 per person well shy of the less than one tonne which must be reached within 50 years (UNFCC, 2015b).

Using the INDCs to estimate their aggregate effect (ClimateInteractive, 2015; Climate Action Tracker, 2015), best estimates of the circa-2100 increase in the Earth’s average temperature ranged from 2.7 to 3.5°C. To stay within 2°C, global emissions would have to peak by 2035 and to thereafter annually decrease by at least 3.5%.

Although the 2°C threshold would be exceeded, the foregoing results remain encouraging. The temperature rise would drop below levels associated with ‘business-as-usual’ and would lessen the burden of adapting to the consequences of climate change. Moreover, were additional emission reductions to be made after 2030, the temperature rise would be lower yet.

But what happens after the Paris meeting is much more important than what happens at the meeting, and to answer the second question we must consider obstacles to implementing the INDCs. For example, the ability of the US to achieve its INDC depends strongly on the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which prescribes a 32% reduction in power plant emissions by 2030. Specific targets are assigned to each of the US states, along with flexibility for meeting the targets.

However, many states view the CPP as an overreach of authority by the executive branch of government, and twenty-seven have challenged its legality, initiating a process that will take several years to work its way through the courts. The bottom line is that the linchpin to the US INDC may not survive legal – or other − challenges.

Now consider the future role of coal, the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions and a critical source of energy for rapidly growing Asian and African economies. China for one has been burning more coal than previously disclosed (Buckley, 2015), and despite aggressive development of renewable and nuclear energy, coal continues to receive preferential treatment (Wong, 2015).

Unlike renewables, coal-fired power plants are guaranteed minimum levels of consumption and preferential access to the grid. Hence, generation by renewables is curtailed − despite strong growth in generating capacity − and capital for future projects is diverted from renewables to coal. Because coal-fired plants have contributed significantly to regional economic development, job creation, and tax revenues, it will be difficult to dampen the construction of new plants. The upshot may well be China’s inability to restrain emissions growth by 2030.

With population growth from 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion by 2030, India will need fifteen years of 8% annual growth to achieve its economic objectives (Porter, 2015; Economist, 2015). It will rely heavily on coal to sustain this growth, and by 2030 its carbon emissions could increase more than three-fold, likely making it the world’s second largest emitter after China. India will not sacrifice economic growth to meet its INDC.

Developing vs Developed Nations

Another obstacle is the blame placed by developing nations on the developed nations for creating the climate change problem. This issue has been a source of tension at previous COP meetings, and it will not go away!

China and India argue that developed nations should provide significant financial support, as well as technology transfer, to assist developing nations in meeting their goals. While this view is shared by all developing nations, the ability of developed nations to meet the demands is problematic at best.

Although intentions expressed in the run-up to COP 21 are encouraging and a departure from business as usual, they are aspirational and it would be prudent to moderate expectations of actual outcomes. For each nation (and for the EU as a collective), there will be obstacles − economic and/or political − to implementation.

Although it’s essential that significant progress be made to curtail global emissions, it’s by no means clear that COP 21 will provide the framework for achieving substantive curtailment by 2030.


  • Buckley, C. (2015). China Is Burning Much More Coal than It Claimed. The New York Times, November 4, p. A1.
  • Climate Action Tracker (2015). Tracking INDCs (www.climateactiontracker.org). Accessed November 16, 2015.
  • ClimateInteractive (2015). Climate Scoreboard (www.climateinteractive.org/tools/scoreboard). Accessed November 16, 2015.
  • Economist (2015). Catching up with China. October 10, pp. 39-41.
  • Incropera, F.P. (2015). Climate Change: A Wicked Problem – Complexity and Uncertainty at the Intersection of Science, Economics, Politics and Human Behavior. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York.
  • Porter, E. (2015). India, Facing Climate Change, Also needs More Energy. The New York Times, November 11, pp. B1,7.
  • UNFCCC (2015a). Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (www.unfccc.int/focus/indc_portal/items/8766.php).
  • UNFCCC (2015b). Synthesis Report on the Aggregate Effect of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (www.unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/07.pdf).
  • Wong, E. (2015). Glut of Coal-Fired Plants Casts Doubts on China’s Energy Priorities. The New York Times, November 12, p. A14.

About The Author

Frank Incropera

Frank Incropera is author of Climate Change: A Wicked Problem (2015). He is Clifford and Evelyn Brosey Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, where he...

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