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Missing the climate objective

Carla Bleiker, Charlotta LomasMay 7, 2015

Keeping global warming down to no more than 2 degrees Celsius - that's the goal for this century. Two new studies suggest the committments themselves are already too weak.

Smoking chimneys. (Photo: picture alliance/ dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

At the UN Climate Summit in Paris this December, nations from all over the world hope to sign a new climate change agreement. The goal: to make sure global temperatures do not increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. To achieve this objective, governments have vowed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and to invest more money in researching renewable energy sources.

Now, experts from around the world are saying that's not enough.

In its 2015 "Energy Technology Perspectives" report, the IEA says that governments need to significantly increase their investments in the development of new energy technologies.

And researchers from the London School of Economics found out that the commitments some countries made in terms of reducing their emissions ahead of the Paris summit are not extensive enough to contain global warming at 2 degrees.

Pushing progress

"A key factor to achieve this goal is having adequate policy support for the deployment of clean energy technologies, including support for innovation," said Daniele Poponi, an IEA senior energy analyst, in an interview with DW.

Poponi is one of the authors of the agency's recent report. It states that "a concerted push for clean-energy innovation is the only way the world can meet its climate goals." This concerted push, his team argues, should include OECD countries tripling their financial support of energy research as well as private investors stepping in. In the IEA's view, the development of clean energy technologies is not progressing fast enough to reach the two-degree-goal.

Windmills on a green pasture. (Photo: Slim ALLAGUI/AFP/Getty Images)
National governments need to invest more in clean energy researchImage: Slim Allagui/AFP/Getty Images

The world, in other words, should rely significantly more on renewable - and nuclear - energy. The researchers emphasize that the transition does have precedents. After all, ten years ago, nobody would have expected the large role wind and solar energy both play today. Their successful trajectory proves that accelerating research and development in clean technologies is possible - and necessary.

Little time

Poponi says that continuing on the current path is not an option, considering the effects a rise in global temperature of more than two degrees would have on the world as we know it.

As Poponi put it: "We will all be losers if we don't take action."

The energy analyst points out that critics who say a transition to clean energy would be ruinously expensive don't see the big picture. The move away from fossil fuels would only cost countries 0.2 or 0.3 percent of their GDP over the next few years, Poponi says. The climate change effects that would come from doing nothing, however, could have disastrous consequences.

"What we're doing right now by not taking action is trading off a few percentage points of GDP versus a much larger negative impact over the long term," Poponi said. "Not doing anything would also have huge implications for human development, particularly for developing and emerging countries. By not taking action now, we are just trading our very limited short-term well-being for that of two or three or four generations."

Big emitters

Researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) have also come to the conclusion that the actions countries are taking to keep global warming under two degrees are woefully insufficient.

They looked at the "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs) that countries have started releasing ahead of the UN Climate Summit in Paris this December, which include steps to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. The LSE researchers calculated what global emissions could be by 2030, based on information that was provided by the largest greenhouse gas emitters: China, the US and the EU.

According to UN calculations, to avoid a temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius, "[G]lobally, we couldn't emit more than about 36 billion tons [of greenhouse gases] in 2030," said Bob Ward, one of the authors of the LSE study, in an interview with DW. "But just together, the European Union, China and the United States would already emit 20 to 22 billion tons in 2030 on current plans."

Greenland icebergs. (Photo: DW/ Irene Quaile)
If emission patterns don't change, Greenland's icebergs might melt awayImage: DW/I. Quaile

These emission levels are too high for the 2-degree goal: Based on current pledges, the world is looking at a temperature rise of 3 degrees this century, the LSE researchers estimate - a rise that hasn't occurred for millions of years and certainly not something that modern humans have ever experienced, Ward adds. That could lead to land-based icecaps melting, which in turn could cause sea levels to rise by up to one meter before the end of this century.

Ambitious, but credible

Rich, developed countries have a larger responsibility to keep this from happening, Ward said. They can do so by improving their climate plans; their per-head emissions are a lot higher than those of emerging or developing countries. They also have the finances and the technologies, he says, to lead the way.

"They should be leading by example, but I'm afraid that not everyone is doing that at the moment."

What does his team at the LSE recommend?

"That countries think about how they can increase their ambition, both leading up to the Paris summit and beyond …. We don't want people coming forward with pledges that look fantastic on paper but are simply not going to be delivered."