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The failure of the Paris climate pledges

November 5, 2019

A new report says that roughly 75% of the 184 national pledges to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement are insufficient to avoid dire global warming. But local and private sector initiatives could offer hope.

A flag stating 'Don't Nuke the Climate'
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Laurent

Scientists are warning that climate change could soon reach a point of no return. And while the timing of this tipping point remains a source of disagreement in the scientific community, there is a consensus about the best way to prevent it: Rapidly cut global greenhouse emissions (GHG). 

But the primary vehicle to achieve emission reductions, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep warming below 2 C above pre-industrial levels — and preferably to limit temperature increase even further to 1.5 Celsius — is proving to be woefully inadequate.

According to a new report by the Universal Ecological Fund (UEF), around 75% of 184 Paris Agreement pledges have been judged insufficient to slow climate change. Worse still, some these pledges are not even being implemented. 

Read more:  IPCC report: The world gets hungrier, but the land is exhausted

'Far too little, too late'

The UEF report is timed to coincide with the upcoming COP climate summit (to take place in Madrid after host Chile cancelled) where signatories to the Paris agreement can make new pledges with steeper emission cuts.

Since the Paris accord was ratified in 2016, only six countries have actually reviewed their pledges, with four upping their cuts and two weakening their pledges.

"Other than a handful of the pledges, namely the European Union and seven other countries, the pledges are quite inadequate," Sir Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and co-author of the report, told DW.

According to Watson, the pledges won't keep temperatures from rising by 2 Celsius, much less the more ambitious target of 1.5 Celsius.

"Simply, the pledges are far too little, too late," he added. "We wanted to push for much stronger pledges as soon as possible."

Also on Tuesday, a paper published in Bioscience Magazine involving more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries declared a climate emergency that could bring "untold suffering" unless urgent action was taken.

Ban Ki Moon and Francois Hollande at the COP21 Climate Conference in France
Then Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon (2-L) and French President Francois Hollande (r) were among those hailing the signing of the historic Paris climate agreement in 2015. But pledges are falling well short to meet targets.Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Guillot

Chance to stay below 2 C already lost?

This isn't the first time that the failures of the so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that are at the heart of the Paris Agreement have been highlighted.

A landmark September "United in Science" report that synthesizes climate research by major partner organizations including UN Environment, the Global Carbon Project and the IPCC, said that the Paris pledges need to be tripled to avert catastrophic warming. 

If implemented, current pledges will achieve closer to 3 C warming at the end of this century, Pep Canadell, Executive Director Global Carbon Project and a report co-author, told DW of the Paris targets. 

More concerning perhaps, he believes the chance to limit warming below 1.5 C has already passed and that unless we reach peak emissions before 2030, "the chances to stay below 2 C will be also largely lost."

Read more: Eco-friendly Paris: paving the way towards a greener future

One problem, according to the UEF report, is that emerging economies China and India, who are among the world's biggest GHG emitters, have only pledged to reduce their emissions "intensity" relative to GDP by 2030. Ongoing economic growth will cause their emissions to increase in the coming decades, meaning these huge polluters have a long way to go to meet the Paris targets. 

One rare ray of hope is the 28 Member State EU, which is expected to cut GHG emissions by 58% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Infographic: How do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Zero emissions

Part of the problem with the Paris pledges, according to Dr Niklas Höhne, a founding partner of the Germany-based NewClimate Institute, is that such non-binding "bottom-up" commitments are not consistent with the broader goals. As an antidote, he says that nations need to immediately set a timetable to reach and sustain net‐zero CO2 emissions.

"It's no longer about small pledges," Höhne said of a net‐zero CO2 emissions policy that the UK Labour Party has already committed to by 2030, as have Democratic Party sponsors of the Green New Deal in the US.

Watson agrees that net zero emissions needs to be the target by 2050, which would mean electricity, at the least, should be 100% renewable.  

How will US withdrawal impact targets?

The US, historically the world's biggest GHG emitter, has complicated matters when President Donald Trump's administration this week confirmed its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Combined with Trump's rollbacks of major federal climate regulations, the Obama Administration-made pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2025 will now likely not be met.

"We definitely regard this as a dangerous decision," said Sven Harmeling, a climate expert at CARE, a Holland-based NGO helping vulnerable communities adapt to the climate crisis, in response to the US withdrawal. "We call on other countries, but also stakeholders in the US, whether cities, whether business, to not get distracted by the isolating step of the US administration but to step up the fight against climate change," he told DW.

Trump withdraws from Paris climate accord

Offsetting failed national pledges

Watson sees potential to meet the Paris targets with or without Trump as state governments and private industry set their own decarbonization targets: "There are some sparks of hope that even in the US, in the absence of leadership from the administration and from Congress, some of the US states and industries are trying to go to low carbon," said Watson.

California, for example — which would be the 5th largest economy in the world in terms of GDP — has set itself a net zero emissions target by 2045. "That is a huge step forward and a very encouraging signal," said Höhne.

Read moreClimate action made in America — despite Trump

Indeed, the Trump administration's Paris exit and climate policy roll back has not stopped the fast decline of coal-fired power and the rise of cheap renewables, according to a Climate Action Tracker (CAT) report released this month.

US emissions in 2030 are expected to be 4% lower than projected when Trump came to power, representing an overall — yet inadequate — cut of 13% below 2005 levels, according to the CAT report.

But pushed by the Fridays for Future and climate emergency movements, national governments also need to foster this low-carbon transition. "We need both," Watson said.

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Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.