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January 28, 2015

A landmark US-China climate change deal
, EU pledges to cut emissions, and a new commitment from India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to expand the use of renewable energy as a way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution are all encouraging signs of “momentum” toward a global climate agreement at a United Nations summit in Paris in December, according to a US climate policy official.

“We have a rough sense of the shape of the elephant, but we don’t know exactly what will come out of Paris yet,” said Rick Duke, Deputy Director for Climate Policy in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change.

Duke was part of a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center on January 27 to discuss the challenges ahead of the Paris summit.

“The joint announcement with China… is an important step, building momentum that is really quite palpable in international dialogues for other countries to step up, make serious post-2020 commitments and deliver against them,” Duke said.

In the US-China deal reached in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time committed to cap carbon emissions, while US President Barack Obama pledged deeper US emissions cuts through 2025.

Obama has underscored his commitment to getting a strong global climate agreement in Paris, said Heather Zichal, nonresident distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, who moderated the panel discussion.

The European Union has stepped up with pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and India stated its commitment to a global energy deal during Obama’s visit to New Delhi this week.

“We are all more optimistic than we were two years ago on where we are going on climate change,” said Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute.

Commitments from the US, China, and the European Union to cut emissions go a long way to getting to an “optimal path” to reach targets, but do not do enough, said Steer.

“Then the question is … what is Brazil going to do, what is India going to do, what is Japan going to do, what is Australia going to do? That is all to play for right now,” he added.

In New Delhi this week, Obama made a push for India to curb emissions.

“I know the argument made by some that it’s unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century,” Obama told an audience in the Indian capital on January 26.

“But here’s the truth: Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly like India — with soaring energy needs — don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change,” he added.

India, like China, is moving toward a fundamentally different position on curbing emissions, said Pete Ogden, Senior Fellow and Director for International Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress.

“I don’t think that at this point anyone will say what happened during President Obama’s trip to India was the moral equivalent of what happened with China, but I think in terms of a country that stands not just for itself… but tends also to represent a swath of developing countries… to see Prime Minister Modi establish a personal stake in the outcome was very different from anything we have seen before,” said Ogden.

Steer, who described as impressive China’s goal to cap emissions by 2030, said recent analyses show that reducing carbon emissions is not costly, in fact “the smart way of doing it actually will promote more growth.”

“The reason [China is] doing it is partly because they want to be part of the solution to climate change, but partly because the arithmetic and the economics suggest that it is in their interest to peak by 2030 even if climate change did not exist,” he added.

Zichal asked the panelists how they would define success in Paris and ensure that emissions cut commitments announced by countries are binding.

Steer said success would be defined by the achievement of “reasonably decent” intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), pledges by countries to cut emissions; a review process with an agreement to return at least every five years, a notion of accountability, and ratcheting up of pledges; a “long-term anchor” to set a target for net carbon neutrality; and a financing mechanism to support countries in need.

Enforcement of countries’ pledges cannot be ensured, but “you can try to guarantee the most transparency possible into the process and into a country’s ability to hit those targets,” said Ogden.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.