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Current Climate Pledges Aren't Enough to Stop Severe Warming

Existing pledges under the Paris Agreement won't curb warming to two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, a new UN report warns.

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A coal-fired power plant in Conesville, Ohio, is among many greenhouse gas emitters the world is struggling to rein in.


The world is not doing enough to curb its collective carbon emissions, a new UN report warns.

In an audit of the global Paris Agreement released Tuesday, the UN Environment Programme finds that if action to combat climate change is limited to just current pledges, the Earth will get at least three degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by 2100 relative to preindustrial levels.

This amount of warming would vastly exceed the Paris Agreement’s goal, which is to limit global warming by the end of the century to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. The main driver of recent warming, which has profoundly discombobulated the global climate, has been the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2).

The report’s release comes on the eve of COP23, a sequel of sorts to the 2015 UN meeting that spawned the Paris Agreement. It also comes the day after the UN confirmed that 2016’s atmospheric CO2 levels were the highest Earth has seen in the last 800,000 years. Methane levels have also reached record highs.

“One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said Erik Solheim, head of UNEP, in a statement.

“This is unacceptable. If we invest in the right technologies, ensuring that the private sector is involved, we can still meet the promise we made to our children to protect their future. But we have to get on the case now.”

To give ourselves a two-out-of-three chance of avoiding two degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, the new report says that 2030’s total emissions can’t exceed 42 billion tons of CO2 equivalent. This threshold represents about 80 percent of 2016’s carbon emissions, which totaled 52 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

Pledges made under the Paris Agreement fall well short of achieving this goal. Even in a best-case scenario for existing pledges, global emissions in 2030 will fall between 53 to 55.5 billion tons of CO2 equivalent in 2030. That amounts to an overshoot of 11 to 13.5 billion tons, or more than twice the United States’ 2016 carbon footprint.

Paris Agreement Participation

After countries sign the Paris Agreement, they formally join the pact by ratifying, accepting, or approving it–thereby expressing the country's agreement to abide by the accord.

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1A brutal civil war and international sanctions made it difficult for Syria to attend the Paris negotiations and deliver an emissions-reduction goal.

Some Progress Made

The report, however, does offer glimmers of good news. Despite steady increases overall in total emissions, the audit finds that since 2014, global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, cement production, and international transport have more or less stabilized around 35 billion tons CO2 equivalent.

Also of note is the Paris Agreement’s near-universal adoption. Of all the countries on Earth, only Syria has refused to join the Paris Agreement. Nicaragua, which for years had criticized the Paris Agreement as insufficient, joined the pact in late October.

That said, on June 1, the United States declared its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020—the only country to do so. The Trump Administration has decried the voluntary pact’s supposed strictures on the U.S. economy.

Climate Change 101 with Bill Nye

In the absence of action on the federal level, U.S. state and local governments, as well as the U.S. private sector, have attempted to push forward and honor the Paris Agreement.

At this writing, 14 states and Puerto Rico have formed a non-binding “U.S. Climate Alliance” that has pledged to honor U.S. obligations under the Paris Agreement. A separate climate effort called We Are Still In claims the support of states, cities, businesses, and universities representing more than 127 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of U.S. GDP.