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The UN Climate Pact That Leaders Are Signing on Earth Day Isn't Enough to Save the Planet

Leaders from more than 160 nations will mark Earth Day at the United Nations, putting their signatures to an international climate change agreement aimed at heading off dangerous changes to Earth's climate.

by Matt Smith
Apr 22 2016, 1:25pm

Imagen por Mary Altaffer/AP

For more Earth Day 2016 coverage, click here.

Days like today are what the United Nations was made to host.

Officials from more than 160 countries will mark Earth Day by putting their signatures to the Paris Climate Agreement, the deal hammered out in December to keep global warming down to a manageable level. There will be dozens of grip-and-grin photos, a big, formal meal, and enough flowery speeches to raise carbon dioxide levels in the General Assembly hall by another couple of points.

Then the hard work starts.

The countries that signed the Paris agreement have promised to take steps to reduce their output of planet-warming carbon dioxide and other gases, with a goal of keeping global average temperatures from going up more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That's the point beyond which scientists warn that climate change could have catastrophic consequences. The Paris plan sets a target of 1.5 C if possible.

But many countries haven't waited for the ceremony to get to work, said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the US-based World Resources Institute.

"It ranges from Morocco starting up its solar power plant, which is the world's largest, to the US and Canada announcing joint commitment to methane emissions," said Waskow, whose organization keeps track of the Paris process. "Many countries are starting to develop their road maps for how they're going to implement the agreement, including how they're going to tackle specific sectors like energy, forests and cities."

Added together, the national emissions cuts promised in the accord fall short of the 2-degree mark. The deal revisits those targets every five years with a goal of cranking back the thermostat as needed — but numbers from the first three months of 2016 underscore just how daunting a target that is.

"It used to be a question of looking into the future. Now we just look out the window," said Bob Deans, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The world's temperature in March ran 1.2 C over the 20th-century average, US climatologists reported this week. That's the 11th straight month that average temperatures have set new records, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the longest hot streak in a record going back to 1880.

That follows a winter that was the warmest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, where Christmas brought shirtsleeve weather to the US Northeast and parts of Canada. Arctic sea ice cover was the lowest since satellites started keeping tabs. The massive sheet of ice that covers Greenland has started melting six weeks earlier than normal, dumping more water into already rising oceans.

Those grim reports underscore the importance of the Paris pact, said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization.

"The magnitude of the changes has been a surprise even for veteran climate scientists," Taalas said in a statement on Friday's signing ceremony. "The state of the planet is changing before our eyes. If the international community acts immediately to halt the rise in CO2 emissions, we can still hope to stabilize global warming over the coming decades. If not, the negative consequences will last for tens of thousands of years."

'We've got to start saying we're not stuck with oil, gas, and coal, and neither are our kids.'

And the independent research group Climate Central concluded this week that the world came within a hair of the 1.5-degree threshold in the first three months of the year. The group compared current temperatures to those recorded in the late 1800s—an earlier baseline than the 20th-century average NOAA uses, or the 1951-1980 mark used by NASA.

But Deans said the increasingly evident effects have also helped boost the public's demand for action—even in the United States, where a substantial chunk of people still scoff at the idea that their cars and power plants are warming the planet. And they also see opportunity.

"There are cleaner, smarter ways to power our future, and people want the jobs that come with that," he said. A March report co-authored by the NRDC estimated that green technology companies employ more than 2.5 million Americans, including more than 400,000 in wind and solar power, and Congress has extended tax breaks that have boosted US renewable energy growth. Worldwide, about half of the new electric service installed in 2015 ran on sunlight or wind, Deans said.

"We've got to start saying we're not stuck with oil, gas, and coal, and neither are our kids," he said.

Related: This Graph Shows Nations Are Addressing Climate Change Without Tanking Their Economies

No. 1 carbon emitter China's commitment to renewable power has driven the price of solar energy down sharply. Global CO2 emissions were flat in 2015 for the second year in a row, even as economies expanded worldwide. And when countries revise their contributions in the coming years, the data collected under the Paris talks will help them figure out what has worked and what hasn't.

Those developments leave analysts like Deans and Waskow optimistic that the Paris accord has a strong chance to succeed.

"All of that gives us the sense that we face a serious problem, but we also have some really serious tools at our disposal to tackle that challenge," Waskow said. "I think together these two factors will lead to a growth and acceleration in the level of action that can be done."

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

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