The Eiffel Tower lights up in December 2015 with an advocacy message for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. (Michel Euler/AP)
Barely two years ago, after weeks of intense bargaining in Paris, leaders from 195 countries announced a global agreement that once had seemed impossible. For the first time, the nations of the world would band together to reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels in an effort to hold off the most devastating effects of climate change.
“History will remember this day,” the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said amid a backdrop of diplomats cheering and hugging.
Two years later, the euphoria of Paris is colliding with the reality of the present.
In short, the world is off target.
“It’s not fast enough. It’s not big enough,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in England. “There’s not enough action.”
Even as renewable energy grows cheaper and automakers churn out battery-powered and more efficient cars, many nations around the world are nonetheless struggling to hit the relatively modest goals set in Paris.
The reasons vary. Brazil has struggled to rein in deforestation, which fuels greenhouse gas emissions. In Turkey, Indonesia and other countries with growing economies, new coal plants are being planned to meet the demand for electricity. In the United States, the federal government has scaled back its support for clean energy and ramped up support for fossil fuels.
There’s still time for the world to set itself on a more sustainable track; many countries have until 2030 to meet their initial targets. But when policymakers from around the world gather at a key U.N. climate meeting in Poland later this year, countries will be forced to reckon with the difference between how much they say they want to limit the warming of the planet and how little they actually are doing to make that happen.
Because the Paris agreement does not legally force countries to cut emissions, world leaders in Poland will have to rely on political and moral persuasion to push for more action.
“More than two decades ago, the world agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in our air to prevent dangerous climate outcomes,” said Rob Jackson, an energy and climate expert at Stanford University, referring to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change that set international negotiations in motion. “To date, we have failed.”
“Tremendous gains in energy efficiency and renewable power aren’t yet reducing our global hunger for fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas,” he added. “Until they do, greenhouse gas concentrations will keep rising.”
The Paris agreement laid out ambitious goals to limit the planet’s warming — world leaders knew they would be difficult to achieve. The deal called for finding ways to remain “well below” a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, and if possible, not above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). A rise of about 1 degree Celsius already has occurred.
But at the same time, the emissions-cutting pledges that countries brought to the table in Paris were nowhere near sufficient to meet such goals, which world leaders acknowledged at the time. The plan was for nations to ramp up their ambition over time.
“There’s this inherent conflict between the global goals and the national contributions,” said Niklas Höhne, a founder of the NewClimate Institute and professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Now, after the United States has said it will withdraw from the process and as many other nations struggle to meet even the modest pledges they made, the world must begin to wrestle with the forces that have so far prevented climate action from matching climate rhetoric.
In many corners of the world, emissions have continued virtually unabated, raising questions about how countries — even well-intentioned ones — can make bolder promises down the line when they have so far been unable to follow through on their current ones.
The struggles of Germany, one of the globe’s most progressive nations when it comes to embracing renewable energy, illustrates the problem.
Steam rises from the cooling towers of the RWE Niederaussem coal-fired power plant near Bergheim, Germany. (Volker Hartmann/Getty Images)
The country’s “Energiewende,” or “energy transition,” aims to generate 80 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2050. The country also has set an aggressive near-term goal of cutting greenhouses gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020.
But Germany is struggling to meet its goals. The county’s emissions actually rose slightly in 2015 and 2016 because of continued coal burning and emissions growth in the transportation sector. That failing trajectory won’t change without “massive and rapid efforts,” according to the German Environment Agency.
The European Union faces a similar quandary. Third after China and the United States in total world emissions, the bloc has pledged a 40 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2030. Time remains for the E.U. to meet that promise, but according to the European Environment Agency, it is on track to fall well short of its goal.
Then, of course, comes Trump’s rejection of the Obama administration’s pledge in Paris to cut the nation’s emissions by more than a quarter below its 2005 level by 2025. Instead, the Trump administration has encouraged the ramping up of oil and gas drilling while slapping tariffs on imports of solar panels.
Largely because of the United States’ dramatic changes in policy, a group called the Climate Action Tracker recently raised its prediction for how much the planet will warm even with the current Paris promises — upping it by 0.3 degrees Celsius, or more than half a degree Fahrenheit. In other words, the United States’ rejection of its pledge could push the entire globe backward on its goal of lowering temperatures.
The news isn’t all bad. China and India, which together produce about 24 percent of the world’s emissions, have encouraged the rapidly growing renewable energy markets in their countries. If they exceed their emissions-cutting targets, that could offset failures elsewhere around the world, Höhne said.
Yet another major developing nation, Brazil, has struggled to further reduce deforestation of the Amazon — one of the top ways in which the nation contributes to climate change — amid economic struggles that have weakened law enforcement in the world’s largest rain forest. Deforestation has actually risen since the record-low year of 2012, with 2016’s total of almost 8,000 square kilometers close to double the level seen four years earlier.
Smoke rises as Amazon wood is burned for charcoal last June at a sawmill in a recently deforested section of the Amazon rain forest in Rondonia state, Brazil. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
As for other challenges, there are fast-growing nations such as Turkey, with a population almost equal to Germany’s (about 80 million) but only about half the emissions. That won’t last, though. Turkey is expected to roughly double its emissions by 2030 as it continues to grow. Much of that could come in the form of building new coal plants, according to the Climate Action Tracker.
The U.N. Environment Program found in its latest “emissions gap” report that a large number of Group of 20 countries would require further steps to meet their Paris pledges. The list included the United States, Japan and Australia. The Climate Action Tracker, meanwhile, lists a number of major countries that have both insufficiently strong pledges and too little action to meet them. That includes the United States, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey, among others.
Erik Solheim, UNEP’s executive director, said world leaders can be a major impediment to more rapid action.
“Political resoluteness is the main obstacle. . . . Change is always difficult, and politicians are risk-averse,” Solheim said. “Some people still believe going green creates fewer jobs, when the opposite is actually the case. . . . It comes from this old-fashioned thinking that you have less jobs and economic growth if you change, when the opposite is the case.”
That said, he remains optimistic that the world can bend its trajectory in the right direction — and in time.
“There’s a much more rapid shift than people tend to believe,” Solheim said, citing the falling price of wind and solar technologies, as well as climate action on the part of states, cities and some of the world’s largest corporations. “The good news is the changes are happening much faster than anyone thought. . . . [But] we have a long way to go. The challenge is huge, and if we fail, the consequences for people will be dramatic.”
This year, countries will officially begin to grapple with how off target they are through the “Talanoa dialogue,” which refers to a process used in Fiji and other Pacific islands for finding consensus and building trust without laying blame. Culminating at the December U.N. meeting in Poland, the dialogue will nudge world leaders to assess where they stand on the need to cut emissions and how far they have to go.
By 2020, countries are expected to actually ramp up the promises they made in Paris.
The problem, experts say, is that if the world’s emissions don’t start declining decisively by then — and declining fast — it may be too late to stave off devastating sea level rise, crippling droughts and storms, and other catastrophic effects of climate change.