Gut Check Time for the Paris Agreement

September 5, 2019 | 12:47 pm
Melting glaciers are a clear sign of climat change and global warming.
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

Nearly four years after countries adopted the Paris Agreement, it faces the first real test of whether it is fit for purpose: will enough countries step up by the end of next year to increase the ambition of their Paris emissions reduction pledges, as is needed to meet the agreement’s bold temperature increase limitation goals?

The outlook is uncertain–growing public concern about the mounting impacts of climate change and the sharp reductions in the cost of solar, wind and other clean technologies provide political and economic rationales for higher ambition, but President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and the trade war he has launched with China are creating headwinds against bold action.

The growing ambition gap

As I noted when the agreement was reached, it is a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, representing the culmination of 25 years of intense negotiations over how to confront the immense challenge of climate change (with lots of ups and downs along the way).

It requires countries to put forward national climate action plans (referred to as “nationally-determined contributions,” or NDCs), and to periodically report on their progress towards implementing those plans, but leaves it up to each country to determine the plan’s content and level of ambition. This last feature has resulted in near-universal participation in the agreement.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the collective level of ambition of the initial round of country NDCs, most of which extend out to 2030, is well short of what is needed to have any chance of meeting the ambitious temperature limitation goal set forth in the Paris Agreement: “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.”

This ambition gap was explicitly acknowledged in the decision adopting the agreement, which also requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepare a report on what it would take to meet the 1.5ºC and 2ºC goals.  That report, released last October, found that:

“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40%–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). For limiting global warming to below 2°C CO2 emissions are projected to decline by about 25% by 2030 in most pathways (10%–30% interquartile range) and reach net zero around 2070 (2065–2080 interquartile range). Non-CO2 emissions in pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C show deep reductions that are similar to those in pathways limiting warming to 2°C.”

The sharp disconnect between the pathways that the IPCC report says are needed to hit the 1.5ºC and 2ºC goals and the emissions trajectories associated with the current Paris Agreement pledges is illustrated by this graph from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) team.

Before Paris, the world was on track for warming of 4ºC or more by 2100; the Paris pledges, if fully implemented, would bring that down to a 2.6º to 3.2º range. But the emissions curve must bend sharply downward to get on pathways consistent with the Paris temperature limitation goals. (Source: Climate Action Tracker, December 2018 update.)

And as CAT’s latest update makes clear, nations are far from making progress in closing this gap. In fact, the situation is getting worse. After three years of little or no increase in global carbon dioxide emissions, we have seen sharp increases in 2017 and 2018, with every expectation that we’ll see the same again this year.

The NDCs of most major emitting countries are rated by the CAT team as “insufficient,” “highly insufficient,” or “critically insufficient” (spoiler alert: the U.S., along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Ukraine, is in that last ignominious category).

What’s clearly needed – and soon — is a massive injection of political will.

Not all the news is bad

There are some signs of hope. A number of countries, including France, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, have set net zero emissions targets in national law, meaning that any emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases will need to be fully offset by actions to remove or sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, and several other countries have adopted such targets as policy positions, but not yet embodied them in law. Most of these countries are aiming to reach this goal by 2050, while Norway, Finland and Sweden intend to reach this target much sooner. The European Union is now considering whether to adopt a collective 2050 net zero emissions target for its 28 member states.

Twenty-two countries and more than 200 states, provinces, and cities all over the world are members of the Under 2 Coalition, committing to “limiting emissions to 80%-95% below 1990 levels, or to below 2 annual metric tons per capita, by 2050 – the level of emission reduction necessary to limit global warming to under 2°C by the end of this century.”

And more than 200 companies – including Coca-Cola, Dell, Kellogg’s, Pfizer, Proctor & Gamble, and Sony – have adopted science-based targets “in line with what the latest climate science says is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.” Here in the U.S., nearly 4,000 states, cities, counties, companies, and other institutions are members of the We Are Still In coalition, which is committed to meeting the U.S. emissions goals under the Paris Agreement despite President Trump’s irresponsible decision to withdraw the United States from the agreement.

Show me your plans

These initiatives are all most certainly to be welcomed. But the hard fact remains that unless more countries–especially those that make up the G20, which are collectively responsible for about 85 percent of global emissions–commit to significantly increasing the ambition of their existing Paris commitments, the possibility of staying well below a 2ºC increase in global temperatures, much less meeting the 1.5ºC limit, will be totally foreclosed.

Recognizing this fact, United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres announced over two years ago that he would hold a leaders’ climate summit in conjunction with the opening of the UN General Assembly in September of 2019. The summit is scheduled for September 23 at UN headquarters in New York, and Secretary-General Guterres has been quite clear as to what he wants from world leaders:

“I am telling leaders: ‘In September, please don’t come with a speech; come with a plan.’ I am calling on leaders to come to New York…with concrete, realistic plans to put us, once and for all, on a sustainable path. These plans must show how to enhance Nationally Determined Contributions by 2020. I also want leaders to demonstrate how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade and get to net zero emissions globally by 2050. That is what science says is needed.

I will also ask leaders to address issues such as a just transition–where no one is left disadvantaged by necessary climate action. And I will ask them to demonstrate the many benefits of climate action, such as job creation, reduced air pollution and improved public health.”

In addition to announcements of commitments to enhance country NDCs, the summit also intends to showcase transformative actions in a number of key sectors, including energy, industry, infrastructure and cities, nature-based solutions, climate resilience and adaptation, and climate finance and carbon pricing.  It will also attempt to respond to “the unprecedented mobilization of young people worldwide who are demanding ambitious climate action” with several initiatives, including a Youth Climate Summit on Sunday, September 22.

Speaking of youth, Greta Thunberg and other leaders of the student climate strike movement have announced they are organizing a global climate strike to be held on September 20th and 27th, and they are calling on adults everywhere to join them.  “Our house is on fire,” they declare. “The climate crisis is an emergency but we’re not acting like it. People everywhere are at risk if we let oil, coal and gas companies continue to pour more fuel on the fire. Millions of us will walk out from home, work, school or university to declare a climate emergency and show our politicians what action in line with climate science and justice means. The climate crisis won’t wait, so neither will we.”

Photo Credit: Alden Meyer


A marathon, not a sprint

No one is under any illusions that the UNSG’s climate summit and the global climate strikes are going to lead to an immediate shift in the thinking and actions of world leaders — this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the forces of denial, delay, and obstruction of climate action are powerful indeed. The fossil fuel industry has a track record of nearly 40 years of deception and harm, and there’s little indication that they intend to transform their business models to be compatible with the Paris temperature goals.

The real test will come over the next year-and-a-half, as countries face the end-of-2020 deadline set out in the decision adopting the Paris Agreement to determine whether to increase the ambition of their initial NDCs. There will be opportunities galore this year and next for countries to showcase their commitments to enhanced climate action, including at the annual Conference of the Parties meetings being hosted by Chile in Santiago this December, and likely by the United Kingdom in November of 2020.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and his efforts to dismantle climate action at the federal level mean the United States will be on the sidelines of the climate fight until January of 2021 at the earliest. In the meantime, all eyes are on the other major emitting countries, in particular China and the European Union.

Can the EU persuade the four Eastern European member states that blocked agreement earlier this summer on a collective long-term net zero emissions goal and a commensurate increase in the EU’s 2030 NDC to drop their opposition? Are China’s leaders ready to follow through on the pledge they made together with France on the sidelines of the G20 summit in June to “update their nationally determined contributions in a manner representing a progression beyond the current one and reflecting their highest possible ambition,” by announcing a significantly strengthened NDC? Or will the uncertainties created by the current US-China trade war lead them to be more cautious?

Perhaps most intriguing is whether the EU and China could make a joint announcement on enhancing the ambition of their NDCs; conversations on this are underway but getting to yes requires overcoming their differences on trade, security, and other issues, and there are no guarantees.

Such an announcement could have a real impact on other major emitters, much as the U.S.-China joint announcement in late 2014 on the two nations’ intended post-2020 climate actions helped spur progress in the last phase of negotiations leading up to adoption of the Paris Agreement.

Time is not on our side

Meanwhile, the climate clock keeps ticking, with heat waves breaking temperature records across Europe this summer and accelerating ice loss in the Arctic and Greenland, water shortages affecting cities and villages across India, and extreme flooding devastating farm communities across the American heartland, to mention just a few recent examples. As former Vice President Al Gore has been saying for several years now, “every night on the network news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” Each of these events is just one more reminder that the climate system is reality-based – it doesn’t respond to plans and speeches, but to emissions.

The Paris Agreement provides the framework for countries to collaborate on the bold action we need to confront the climate emergency, but realizing its promise requires much greater leadership, especially from presidents and prime ministers. We will soon know whether that leadership is forthcoming at the pace and scale needed to start bending the emissions curve down sharply, as the world’s scientists have made clear we must do to avert climate catastrophe.