Five years ago this Saturday, nearly every country in the world adopted the Paris climate agreement in a planetary effort to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.
For more than a decade leading up to Paris, the road to an international climate pact had been paved with false starts and broken promises.
When the gavel finally came down on the accord in December 2015, Christiana Figueres — who marshaled the deal into existence as head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — says it took a moment to sink in.
“After so many years, after so many disappointments,” Figueres reflected this week, “it was really just astonishing at first.”
Countries signed onto the goals of limiting the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels, thereby reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the second part of the 21st century.
Five years on, those involved in the negotiations say there's still much work ahead. But there are signs of optimism, too, particularly in 2020: several countries have announced new targets to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
This year, countries were also expected to update their plans for nearer-term carbon cuts. But COP26, the annual UN climate summit slated to happen in Glasgow last month, was postponed due to the pandemic — stoking fears that action would be delayed.
The UN, United Kingdom and France are instead hosting an online climate summit on Saturday, meant to nudge countries to announce updated targets anyway. Several dozen are expected to do so, joining countries like Colombia and the UK, which already have.
‘Catastrophic climate change’
To get everyone on board back in 2015, the agreement was designed to be flexible. Countries would set their own targets for how much they would slash planet-warming emissions, with the idea that regular reporting and a sort of multilateral peer pressure would compel them to up the ante on promises for deep carbon cuts.
Countries did sign. But for several years after the Paris agreement’s adoption, the sum of the Nationally Determined Contributions to cut carbon emissions didn’t add up to the amount needed to reach the overall temperature target.
Estimates of the warming felt by century’s end — even incorporating the pledges countries had made — stubbornly hovered around 3 degrees Celsius, according to Niklas Höhne, co-founder of the NewClimate Institute and the Climate Action Tracker. That tool estimates how much warming we should expect based on countries’ policies and promises since 2009.
“That would basically lead to catastrophic climate change,” Höhne said about the status quo for much of the Paris agreement’s lifespan.
Since 2015, the bureaucratic details of the pact have been hammered out at successive UN climate summits.
But year after year, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. They’ve increased by an average of 1.4% per year over the last decade, according to a UN report released this week. Due to a surge in forest fires, emissions spiked to 2.6% last year.
‘That is a huge jump’
Since the Paris agreement was adopted, the impacts of the Earth’s heating have continued to be felt, particularly in the Global South. And these tangible manifestations have been linked in the public consciousness to climate change more than ever before.
Heatwaves blanket Europe and the Arctic, drought plagues the Sahel, locusts swarm the Horn of Africa, wildfires rage in the US and Australia, and the Atlantic just saw its worst hurricane season on record.
In September 2019, UN Secretary António Guterres hosted the Climate Action Summit in New York to push for more ambitious climate pledges and increased funding. At the end of the event, 77 countries were formally committed to achieving carbon neutrality around 2050, in line with the Paris agreement.
Yet that figure included none of the world’s largest emitters, and together they represented just a small fraction of global emissions. Expected warming by century’s end remained well above the Paris temperature target.
Then, this spring, things started to change. First the European Union, then South Africa, Japan, South Korea and Canada all set targets of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. President-elect Joe Biden has a similar plan for the US.
And China, in perhaps the biggest climate news of 2020, announced plans to become “climate neutral” by 2060.
Höhne said that, including the US, “it’s actually 127 countries which are now discussing this kind of a target, and they cover two-thirds of global emissions.”
“The temperature number that we estimate for the end of the century is significantly lower now, and that is a huge jump,” he added. “That creates some optimism.”
‘We are getting there’
If all countries keep their promises, the Climate Action Tracker estimates end-of-century warming could stay as low as 2.1 degrees Celsius. The UN’s estimate is somewhat higher, around two-and-a-half degrees Celsius.
The Climate Action Tracker project says this range is “within striking distance” of the Paris agreement’s temperature aim.
“In terms of the long-term pledges, we are getting there,” said Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “We are getting a lot closer than we ever have been.”
But there’s a major caveat.
“The challenge is going to be making sure that these pledges translate into near-term action,” Fransen said. To make these promises credible, countries are obliged to revamp emissions targets they set for the next decade — as part of the Paris process.
These targets are subject to reporting requirements and international scrutiny and would serve as necessary pit stops on the way to more ambitious 2050 net-zero targets.
“So we need to kind of re-set those 2030 milestones to really be in line with the level of ambition that countries are articulating,” Fransen said.
“What you’re going to see is gradual, incremental reductions to 2030. And then, emissions have to fall off a cliff from 2030 to 2050,” Fransen said. “And with the way technology systems and infrastructure and investment works, that’s not a viable pathway.”
“What you’re going to see is gradual, incremental reductions to 2030. And then, emissions have to fall off a cliff from 2030 to 2050.”
Former UN diplomat Christiana Figueres says five years on, it’s clear the world is headed in the right direction.
“Are we doing [it] fast enough? No,” she said. “Our purpose here is to accelerate that change to close the gap between where we are and where we need to be.”