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It's Pretty Obvious Not Enough Is Being Done Ahead of the Paris Climate Talks

Several analyses show that current carbon reduction pledges made by the world's governments are inadequate for keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Age levels.

by Matt Smith
Nov 7 2015, 2:00pm

Photo by Oliver Berg/EPA

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The good news: The overwhelming majority of the world's economies have laid out plans to cut their carbon emissions ahead of the upcoming climate summit in Paris.

The bad news: They're still short of the goal the United Nations has set for holding the line on global warming. But those keeping tabs on the December talks say they're at least a running start toward that target.

"We have some substantial reductions that come out of that, and that takes a curve that's been bending and keeps bending it even further," said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the US-based World Resources Institute. "But it's not bending it far enough, and what we need to do in Paris is to create a process that keeps moving the momentum forward."

More than 150 countries, including the leading sources of carbon dioxide and other fossil-fuel emissions, have submitted plans to cut emissions by 2030. But the proposed cuts are "probably halfway to what we need to achieve," UN Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said Friday.

What's been laid out would still drive global average temperatures at least 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times by 2100— well beyond the 2 C (3.6 F) of warming that scientists warn could produce catastrophic changes, UNEP concluded. The world is nearly halfway to that 2-degree mark already.

The Paris pledges are "positive momentum" toward avoiding the worst, Steiner told reporters. But Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP's chief scientist, said, "We need to do more and continue to do more to stay on track."

"We need to be in net zero emissions at least by the second half of this century," McGlade said.

Related: These Nations Might Have the Most to Lose With a Global Climate Deal

An earlier study by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — the organizers of the upcoming Paris conference — found the current pledges will likely allow warming of at least 2.7 C over pre-industrial times. That's not great — but it's "a major improvement" over the 4 degrees or more projected to occur without any changes, UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres said this week.

"Is it enough? No," Figueres told PBS "NewsHour." But she said whatever agreement comes out of Paris "is the floor of global effort, and certainly not the ceiling."

Waskow said that was reinforced this week when conference host France and China, now the world's largest CO2 emitter, endorsed language that would require countries to regularly update their carbon-reduction goals every five years. That's "a critical element" that will keep the pressure on countries to reduce emissions beyond the goals they've laid out so far, he said.

In addition, the Chinese-French statement calls for increased support for developing countries that are facing the brunt of climate-related disasters, for low-carbon technology, and for "cooperative projects in areas of mutual interest."

But the road to Paris is littered with the smoking hulks of previous efforts to rein in climate change.

The first major climate pact, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, didn't include emerging industrial powers like China and India, while the United States — until recently the biggest emitter — never ratified the deal. The last major climate conference, held in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, was widely considered a failure as participants failed to agree on significant reductions.

Advocates say a lot has changed since 2009, however. The price of renewable power has fallen sharply, with non-hydroelectric renewables amounting to nearly half of all installed electric capacity in 2014, Steiner said — a mark he said "would have been considered impossible 20 years ago, and even unlikely by many experts 10 years ago."

Related: If This Part of Antarctica Collapses, Sea Levels Could Rise 10 Feet

Meanwhile, the effects of climate change are more apparent than ever in places like Alaska and Greenland, and figures like Pope Francis — the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics — are more outspoken than ever. Francis threw the weight of his church behind calls for action over the summer; so did Islamic leaders from 20 countries.

"If you're at all technologically optimistic, the message from everyone in the clean-energy world is this transition is going to be quicker and cheaper than anybody predicts," said Jamie Henn, spokesman for the climate-action advocates at 350.org. "The hope is we're sort of in the 1980s of computer technology when it comes to solar, and that countries, once they get the ball moving in the right direction, will figure out that they can transition even more quickly."

But environmental groups like 350.org and Friends of the Earth, which are trying to rally support for a stronger deal, say the pledges from developed countries don't go far enough to hold back future emissions. Luisa Abbott Galvao, climate and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said letting countries make voluntary pledges lets countries like the United States —"the largest historic contributor to climate change"— off the hook.

"That's like trying to put out a fire and telling them to bring whatever they want, and they end up bringing little mugs with water or buckets of water when what you really need are fire trucks," Abbott Galvao said. Non-UN studies of the Paris pledges have put their resulting warming at closer to 3.5 C (6.3 F), "and we keep kicking the problem down the road when things aren't adding up," she said.

Henn said recent political developments in the industrialized world — the defeat of Canada's tar-sands boosting Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the ouster of climate change denier Tony Abbott in Australia — have boosted the prospects of a deal in Paris. But his organization is concerned that representatives of the fossil-fuel industry will be part of the talks, and wants to see developed countries contribute more to help developing countries build renewable energy and adapt to climate change.

Figueres told PBS that as of 2014, developed countries had contributed $62 billion of the $100 billion they have promised to kick in by 2020.

"What they have on the table now isn't enough, but it still leaves the door open to meet the targets that scientists have laid out for us," Henn said. 

Related: President Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

Watch VICE News environment editor Robert S. Eshelman discuss climate change: