HomeScienceInternational climate pledges may be on the right track—maybe

International climate pledges may be on the right track—maybe

Image of a protest march.
Enlarge / Protesters call for action on climate change in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.

After Joe Biden won the US presidential election, he pledged that the country would cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030. And the US is hardly alone in this ambition. According to new research by Climate Analytics—part of the Climate Action Tracker consortium—131 countries are either discussing, have announced, or are implementing net-zero targets. The paper notes that, if fully implemented, these would cut 72 percent of global emissions.

The extent to which national climate goals can help realize the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5° C is an open question. But according to Matthew Gidden, one of the recent paper’s authors, these climate goals are having (and could indeed continue to have) a marked impact on the climate of the future.

“The clear message from my point of view is that the window has not closed,” he told Ars. “However, it needs significant and real action, especially by the developed countries of the world and the largest emitters in the world, to really make movement.”

Hot takes

In 2020, many countries rolled out net-zero goals and pathways to get there. Gidden and his colleagues looked into every climate policy, either proposed or rolled out, and identified what all of them would mean for the climate. This was not necessarily the easiest task, as countries defined their targets differently. Some set goals for 2050, for instance, while others set theirs for 2060. Further, some targeted carbon dioxide specifically, while others also pledged to cut other greenhouse gases, such as methane.

Overall, the research found that, if implemented in their entirety, these targets could limit temperature increase to between 2° and 2.4° C by 2100. Without these targets, using currently implemented policies, the world could expect to see a warming of 2.9° to 3.2° C in that time. According to Gidden, since the Paris Agreement was ratified in 2015, climate policies around the world successfully took the global warming forecast down from 3.5° C.

“To me, this speaks to the importance of countries setting clear, transparent targets both in the near term and in the long term,” he said.

More work needed

Another recent paper, the UNFCCC Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) Synthesis report, paints a similar but somewhat less optimistic portrait of the situation. As of July 30, 2021, the report noted that there were 86 updated or new NDCs submitted by 113 parties. Within this group, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to decrease by 12 percent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.

However, the paper noted that, in order to reach the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5° C, carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030. Further, the paper noted that overall global GHG emissions are expected to increase by 16 percent by 2030. If this doesn’t change, the world could see a temperature rise of 2.7° C by the end of the century. NDCs were always expected to get more stringent over time, but we’re running short on time for the sorts of changes we need.

Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change said in a press release:

Knowing how much work on enhancing NDCs has been ongoing, I again call on all Parties that have not yet done so to submit new or updated NDCs. But those Parties that have already made submissions also have the opportunity to revisit their NDCs to increase their level of ambition. The time left before COP26 is short, but I hope we may still see many more NDCs.

Indeed, Gidden said that there is some clear room for improvement in the world’s climate pledges. He agreed that the world is still not on track to make the Paris Agreement goals. “In the near term, we’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.

There’s also no guarantee that the countries will actually implement their emission-reduction strategies. For instance, President Biden’s climate goals have yet to be codified into law. Further, there are a great many other countries that could make pledges. Gidden suggested that COP26, held in Glasgow this November, may well be a defining time for the climate, as countries might use it to make more ambitious climate pledges.

Another recent publication out of Climate Analytics also suggests that G20 nations could have a large role to play in reducing global greenhouse gas levels, considering they account for around 75 percent of emissions. The paper suggests that, if all G20 countries adopted midcentury net-zero commitments and pushed hard to limit global warming at 1.5° C, warming could be limited to 1.7° C by 2100.

“Setting these targets is an important part of [reaching our climate goals], but we still need to do more,” Gidden said.

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