Climate

Why The U.N. Is Still Confident We Can Stay Below 2°C

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres.

According to a new synthesis, the more than 140 national climate action plans already submitted to the United Nations have the capability to put world on track for a 2.7°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

That’s both good news and bad news — it means that the current pledges, also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), are stronger than previous ones, but still not strong enough to keep the world below 2°C, largely considered the cut-off for irreversible climate change.

“Fully implemented these plans together begin to make a significant dent in the growth of greenhouse gas emissions: as a floor they provide a foundation upon which ever higher ambition can be built,” Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in a press statement. “I am confident that these INDCs are not the final word in what countries are ready to do and achieve over time — the journey to a climate safe-future is underway and the Paris agreement to be inked in Paris can confirm, and catalyze that transition.”

The synthesis includes national climate plans from 146 countries, all of which had submitted their plans as of October 1. Collectively, the plans cover 86 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which the U.N. points out is almost four times the level of the first commitment period from the Kyoto Protocol. The climate plans include all developed nations, as well as three-quarters of developing nations.

By 2025, the U.N. estimates that the current plans will result in an 8 percent decrease in global average per capita emissions. By 2030, per capita emissions could drop as much as nine percent.

Jennifer Morgan, global director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute, praised the U.N. report, singling out the strength of current commitments compared to previous INDCs, which would have put the world on track for as much as 5°C.

“We are already seeing significant progress catalyzed by the Paris negotiations,” Morgan said in a press statement. “All countries’ submissions are stronger now than they were before. With more than 153 countries coming forward with national commitments, we’re now seeing an unprecedented level of cooperation on climate change. These plans point us to a better world with stronger economies, more renewable energy, more livable cities, healthier forests, and more resilient communities.”

While current INDCs represent a strong step forward, the report also highlights the gap between current commitments and the 2°C limit agreed upon by nearly 200 governments during the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. By 2030, according to the report, the world will have used three-quarters of its “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon allowed into the atmosphere to stay below the 2° C limit — and nations will need to revisit and strengthen their pledges. As Chris Mooney at the Washington Post points out, total annual emissions, however, are set to increase under current INDCs, from 48 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2010 to 55 gigatons in 2025 and 57 gigatons in 2030.

“The commitments reviewed in today’s report indicate progress towards that first goal,” Andrew Deutz, Director of International Government Relations for the Nature Conservancy, said in a statement. “The foundation has been poured, but to build from this the Paris agreement must deliver transparency and accountability against these pledges, and ensure that countries accelerate their ambition over time.”

Because of the need for stronger climate commitments from many countries, including top emitters like China, many experts argue that a successful climate agreement in Paris must include short intervals for reassessing and strengthening pledges. According to the most recent draft of a potential U.N. climate agreement, released in early October, countries will be expected to reassess their commitments every five years.

But not all of those changes will necessarily come from government policies, some experts say. As Han Chen, international climate advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress, the wide-ranging nature of the INDCs should signal to businesses that switching to low-carbon investments is a smart move for the future.

“Paris is the opportunity to set up that pathway for future reductions, not just for 2030 but for decades beyond that,” Chen said. “The INDCs include policies spanning all parts of the economy – for renewable energy, efficiency, urban planning, transport, agriculture, and so many other areas. We can shift the trillions invested in activities that lead to high carbon pollution towards smarter low-carbon investments in all those areas – and this is a clear signal for companies and investors worldwide where they should be betting on future growth.”

UPDATE NOV 3, 2015 2:57 PM

This post has been updated to provide context to the UN report. For an analysis of the UN report, see Joe Romm's piece.

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