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Six Months Before the Paris Climate Talks, Nations Have a Lot of Work to Do

An analysis of greenhouse gas reduction pledges shows that a lot more needs to be done to hold off a dangerous level of global warming.
Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

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Many of the world's leading economies have submitted to the United Nations their plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The plans are part of an international effort to keep temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-Industrial Age levels. But the pledges are so far inadequate for accomplishing that goal, according to an analysis by the non-profit Climate Analytics, and will only delay reaching a 2C rise by two years. Rather than occurring in 2036, the group says, temperature increase will surpass 2C in 2038.


"The basic idea that the pledges so far don't add up to 2 degrees I think is not surprising. Everyone predicted this. So this is just kind of a reflection of reality," David Victor, a professor at UC San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, told VICE News. "And part of it is, that what's being pledged is not ambitious enough to get the 50-80 percent reduction in emissions necessary to stop warming by 2 degrees."

While ambition might be low, another reason for the gap is simply that not all nations have submitted their pledges, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in UN jargon. Big emitters like the United States and the European Union have said how much they'll cut greenhouse gas emissions but other leading economies like India and Brazil haven't. Nor has China, the world's biggest emitter, although it has announced a plan to peak its emissions by 2030.

"The scientific community has not fully come clean about the difficulty of getting to 2 degrees," said Victor, who has written critically of the goal in the first place. "The 2 degree goal has become in some sense a distraction, because it gets people focused on something that's unachievable."

It's also, he said, the wrong benchmark: countries need to plan to adapt to temperatures that may well rise by more than 2 degrees.

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Studies like Climate Analytics', which was commissioned by the Guardian, are an important reality check, said Peter Frumhoff, the chief scientist of the climate campaign at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"We need to prepare for the prospect, the growing prospect, that we're not going to get there," he told VICE News. The idea that global warming might not be stopped at a rise of 2C is an uncomfortable idea, he said, and there's a fear that somehow broaching the subject of not hitting the goal makes it less likely to get there in the first place.

Jennifer Morgan, the global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI),said that it's important to keep a bigger, long-term strategy in mind. When diplomats meet in Paris at the end of the year to hammer out an international climate agreement, the pledges should be thought of as a floor, not a ceiling, she said.

"I think having these types of studies are very helpful," she told VICE News. "But I think what's being built for Paris is something that moves us closer to staying below 2 degrees, with the initial INDCs, but then creates an architecture [for more emissions reductions]."

At the Washington DC-based group Climate Advisers, they've crunched the climate change numbers in a different way. According to Joel Finkelstein, the group's director for strategic communications, the rosiest scenario goes like this: If all the countries who haven't yet filed their INDCs announce "strong pledges," then the world gets 50 percent closer to meeting the 2-degree goal. If those pledges are "wimpy," then attaining that goal is harder — the gap is closed by just 28 percent.


While falling short of that 2C goal by 50 percent under the best scenario sounds dire, Finkelstein is upbeat, saying it's not bad if each country's domestic plan gets us that far. The remaining 50 percent can be made up for by international efforts to do things like reduce tropical deforestation and meet growing energy needs with renewable sources.

"[We have] to look at how we can work together to get the other half," Finkelstein told VICE News.

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But before the meeting in Paris can happen, representatives from over 190 countries must agree to the text that will be used for the negotiations there, and that is what is happening currently in Bonn. A roughly 90-page document is slowly being trimmed down, the WRI's Morgan said, in what is essentially "a giant editing exercise."

And it's not going quickly enough, she said.

"I just hope that they can pick up the pace on it and start streamlining it much more, because they didn't get much cut out [of the document] in the first four days," Morgan said.

Then there's the upcoming G7 meeting in Germany on June 7 and 8, in which climate change is expected to be on the agenda. Morgan said what could emerge from that meeting "is a long term goal to send a clear signal that the pace of change [to address global warming] is going to accelerate." This is something that German chancellor Angela Merkel has championed, Morgan said, and could be an ambitious goal for the future, like a world where the amount of carbon that's emitted is equal to what's absorbed by the Earth's natural processes.

"That type of target can be like a north star that guides the way, so that you can plan and make sure you're on track and you don't leave it all to the last minute," Morgan added. "Because you'll then fail."

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Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger