The good news is that countries are increasing their ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not enough.
World leaders, scientists, activists and negotiators are gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), this year’s annual global meeting aimed at implementing climate action, including the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. Current emissions reduction pledges are far short of what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees C. Under existing pledges, global temperature rise by the end of the century would be about 2.4 to 2.6 degrees C above preindustrial levels, according to a recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report. Even though policies are not in place to meet those pledges, the temperature rise is currently at 2.8 degrees C .
Every fraction of a degree of warming avoided makes a difference in lessening the ever worsening impacts of the climate crisis. Such changes have already been seen across the globe this year, with heat waves, floods and droughts all exacerbated by rising global temperatures. The window to narrow the gap between what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement and what is currently being done is small–about a decade–and quickly closing. We must reduce emissions as quickly as possible. We must transition to clean energy as quickly as possible. We must stop deforestation as soon as possible. This is true regardless of whether you believe we can still meet the 1.5-degree target, or whether you think 1.6 degrees, 1.8 degrees, or two degrees are locked in,” Taryn Fransen (a senior fellow at World Resources Institute and the author of UNEP’s report), says.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to increase their aggressiveness in meeting their emission reduction goals every five year. These voluntary pledges are called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in U.N. parlance. At the COP26 meeting held last year in Glasgow, countries were urged to update their pledges on a faster time scale before the COP27 summit. These updates only account for 0.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is about the average annual emission of South Africa and Turkey. Fransen states that some of these pledges were from countries that hadn’t set ambitious targets prior to the Glasgow meeting, and therefore were playing catch up.
The gap between current pledges and keeping warming to two degrees C is equivalent to about 12 gigatons of CO2–the gap to 1.5 degrees C is an even steeper 20 gigatons.
But international promises are only one aspect of reducing emissions. The policies that countries adopt to achieve those pledges is even more important. Some countries, like the U.S., make pledges that go beyond their domestic policies. When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he said that the U.S. would reduce its emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. Fransen states that this was a very ambitious goal for the United States. Fransen says, “That was seen as a pretty strong stretch goal for the United States.” (The IRA is estimated to reduce U.S. emissions between 30 and 40 percent. )
Inversely, other countries have domestic strategies that should achieve greater reductions than what their pledges currently aim for. Fransen states that India has set a modest NDC, but has policies that aim to boost renewable energy and will easily exceed that goal. India is a country that is developing economically, but cannot continue to use fossil fuels as freely as the U.S. or other developed countries. Renewable energy’s growing cost competitiveness has made that alternative more viable, but installing wind and solar power still requires financing. Some developing countries have made their NDCs conditional on receiving financial support from developed countries. That financing will be a key point of the COP27 talks because developed countries are far behind in providing the money they have pledged for this purpose.
A few countries have indicated that they may update their NDCs at the meeting, but it’s highly unlikely that they would close the global gap. Fransen states. She says that countries need to continue to push for their ambitions over the next few years through both their Paris Agreement promises and domestic policies that will bring them to fruition.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body that gathers and synthesizes climate research, “has laid out how we can cut emissions in half by 2030 in a cost-effective manner. Fransen states that technology options exist; it is physically feasible. “In my view, it’s really a question of political judgment.”