We Are Nowhere Close to Meeting Our Climate Goals

It was unseasonably warm in New York City as world leaders convened at the United Nations headquarters for the Climate Action Summit on Monday. A global climate strike organized by the teen activist Greta Thunberg days earlier had set the tone: We need to implement far more aggressive decarbonization efforts—now.“This is not a climate talk summit, we have had enough talk. This is a climate action summit,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said during his opening remarks. “The ticket to entry is not a beautiful speech, but concrete action.”
The summit highlighted the nations doing the most to fulfill their commitments as part of the 2016 Paris climate accord. That meant representatives from Saudi Arabia, Japan, and the US got no time on stage. Among the biggest contributors to the global carbon budget, they were excluded for not sufficiently committing to emissions reduction or for pursuing policies that actively undermine the Paris accord. President Donald Trump underscored his climate dismissal by attending for a mere 15 minutes. With dozens of world leaders descending on UN headquarters, Trump had scheduled a competing meeting at the UN for a “call to protect religious freedom”; in the end, he and Vice President Mike Pence made a brief surprise appearance at the climate meeting.The tone of the climate summit was one of urgency. As part of the Paris accord, countries agreed to adopt nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which outlined the steps they would take to limit greenhouse gas emissions within their borders. Even back in 2016, when the Paris agreement was formally signed, it was clear the contributions alone would not keep warming below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. This is a so-called “tipping point” beyond which the fallout from climate change begins to rapidly accelerate. But so far, the world’s industrialized nations haven’t even hewed to this lackluster goal.
Since 2016, global carbon emissions have continued to grow. Last year, the US, which is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after China, saw its largest increase in carbon emissions since 2010. On Sunday, the UN World Meteorological Organization released a report that showed that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels grew by 2 percent last year to reach an all-time high. At this rate, the report notes, the world’s emissions will continue growing past 2030, making it extremely difficult to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C, according to the UN climate panel.

Even worse, the report concluded the current NDCs will lead to an increase of 2.9 to 3.4 C by 2100. To have any hope of meeting the 2 C goal, the “current level of NDC ambition needs to be roughly tripled.” To keep average temperatures below the preferred (but still problematic) threshold of 1.5 C is “technically possible,” the report notes, but would require a rapid, global mobilization unprecedented in human history.

In light of this emissions gap, many countries are stepping up their NDCs. At the UN summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed how Germany will phase out all of its coal plants by 2038. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country has stopped issuing permits for offshore oil exploration, will plant one billion trees by 2028, and will use only renewable electricity by 2023. UN Secretary General Guterres called for countries to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050, and 60 nations signed on. But other countries, including China, did not extend their NDC commitments as many had hoped.