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Climate pledge shortfalls

Jennifer Collins
November 13, 2017

The countries signed onto the Paris Agreement have made pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The promises are at the core of the accord, but can they prevent devastating climate change?

The Care about Climate Group at COP23 Climate Conference in Bonn
Image: DW/J. Collins

Men and women dressed in suits and armed with phones and papers rush to meetings at the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, largely ignoring two lines of young people holding colorful signs. As they stomp towards each other to symbolically close the "gap" between government pledges and projected emissions, the protesters shout for global leaders to "step up" and cut CO2. 

"We want leaders to be more ambitious," Hsin-yi Yao from Taiwan told DW, "and really care about the people of their own country and other people on this earth – so to make a step up for more ambitious climate plans."

Stronger commitments are needed, says the Care about the Climate group - which is made up of young people from countries as diverse as Uganda, Sweden and the US - because current targets will make it impossible to achieve the Paris objectives. These are to keep the global average temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aim to limit it to 1.5 degrees, and to reach net zero emissions in the second half of the 21st century.

Read more: McKibben: We need action to match the scale of the problem

But according to an analysis in the journal Nature, the Paris Agreement pledges would actually lead to a global temperature rise of between 2.6 and 3.1 degrees by 2100.

In Fiji, the country holding the presidency for this year's conference, people are already experiencing the effects of climate change – and fear worse is to come. Frances Namoumou from the Pacific Congress of Churches says increasingly violent storms, like tropical Cyclone Winston, which hit the island nation almost two years ago, have had a devastating impact.

"Communities who were affected along this route are still trying to recover today to rebuild back their communities into normalcy," she added. 

A damaged home on the island of Fiji
Fiji is still rebuilding after violent Cyclone Winston hit the island in 2016 Image: picture alliance/dpa/AAP/Mai Life Magazine

The heart of the Paris Agreement 

Everything hinges on what are known as the "nationally determined contributions" which many countries submitted to the UNFCCC in 2015. Their title is as dry as they come, even in its abbreviated form, their substance, however, is anything but. In fact, the NDCs are at the life blood of the Paris Agreement. 

They outline each country's greenhouse gas reduction commitments and include plans to adapt to the changing climate through the use of drought resilient crops or initatives that protect against sea level rise, for instance. Essentially the NDCs determine whether the world will achieve the Paris objectives and avoid catastrophic climate change.

So far, 162 countries have submitted these nationally determined contributions. Most have pledged an initial emissions cut by 2030 and promised to strengthen their ambitions every five years. Each government decides for itself where and how to cut its CO2 levels – whether through clean technology, renewable energy policies or carbon-pricing to push out coal and other fossil fuels.

'Ambitious and fair'

Each NDC is supposed to be ambitious and fair, so pledges differ wildly depending on the country, its capacity, financial situation and stage of development.

A highly developed nation like Canada, for example, is aiming to reduce its CO2 output by 30 percent below 2005 levels. To do so, it plans to decrease emissions across its whole economy, from building and transport to a coal phase-out in the energy sector.

Fiji, which emits very little greenhouse gas, plans to get 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. Building resilience to extreme weather and sea level rise is particularly important to the Pacific island, which is on the front line of climate change.

Climate protest at the Hambach coalmine
Climate activists from the Pacific islands joined German protesters to call for Germany to wind down coal plantsImage: DW

Read more: The battle for villages and forests in Germany's coal country

Countries are also expected to monitor and report their own progress in cutting emissions so the global community can check if we are on track to meet the Paris objectives and whether parties to the accord are living up to their promises. For this to happen, states need a standardized and transparent way to calculate their carbon. 

Following the Paris Agreement's timeline, a "rule book" to regulate the process is being discussed this year in Bonn and has to be finished by the next conference, which will be held in the Polish town of Katowice in 2018.

Read more: COP23: Writing the Paris accord rule book

The process is "highly political" – and it won't be easy, said Elmar Kriegler, a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. 

"Countries have different national circumstances, which is explicitly acknowledged in the agreement," added Kriegler. "You cannot compare countries and what they are doing without taking into account their needs and circumstances."

How do we reach the Paris targets?

Kriegler told DW he expects parties to the Paris Agreement to officially recognize that the NDCs as they stand "are not in line with the Paris goal" at Katowice in 2018. An ongoing study by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has so far found only Morocco and Gambia have NDCs compatible with the 1.5 degree target. CAT scientists say countries must start lowering emissions by 2020 if we are to avoid overshooting the temperature target.

Frances Namoumou
Frances Namoumou wears a cape at the COP23 to "identify all women are wonder women in all aspects of work and life"Image: DW

If the 2030 goals remain as they are, we will have to deal with the consequences of severe warming and introduce technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale, said Kriegler. This comes with its own set of problems, including conflicts over where and how CO2 would be stored.

Read more: Engineering the climate — is it a good idea?

CAT has proposed 10 steps to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, including expansion of green energy and phasing out gas and diesel cars by 2035. But more importantly, developed countries such as Germany need to move away from coal rapidly. 

Countries have the opportunity to submit new or updated NDCs before 2020. Eliza Northrop from the World Resources Institute, which worked closely with a number of states in formulating their commitments said the next two years will be crucial for parties to reflect on "where there might be opportunities to go further to capitalize on the social and economic benefits of climate action."

For Fijians and other Pacific Islanders, an overhaul of the NDCs is an imperative. Without it, they face an uncertain future, said Frances Namoumou. "For us, 2 degrees is like a death sentence. It is wiping out an entire island, an entire nation, an entire population."

"We are talking about 1.5 degrees to stay alive," she said.