International negotiators have called 2020 a make-or-break year for the Paris climate agreement, but observers at the United Nations climate talks wrapping up in Madrid say too many countries are still dragging their feet in the face of ominous warnings.
“Next year is going to be a moment of truth,” said David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative. “Are we really going to cut emissions or are we going to find fudges and loopholes and ways around?”
Countries have until November—the date of the next major climate talks by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland—to announce how they will make even deeper cuts to climate pollutants than they promised in 2015 in the leadup to the Paris Agreement.
After that, countries are required to revisit and strengthen their carbon cuts every five years.
Major Emitters Silent or, in Case of U.S., Backing Out
As of Dec. 11, 73 countries announced intentions to cut their carbon emissions beyond the level they agreed to when the 2015 Paris pact was struck. But those countries, along with several others also intending to cut climate pollution, represent just 10.5% of global carbon emissions, according to the World Resources Institute.
None of the world’s major climate polluters, including China, Brazil, Japan, India, Russia, or Australia, have announced intentions to deepen their carbon-cutting commitments in 2020.
And President Donald Trump is removing the U.S.—the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter behind China—from the Paris pact outright, a move that becomes official on Nov. 4, 2020.
EU ‘Green Deal’
One potential bright spot among major economies is the 28-nation European Union. The European Commission announced plans Dec. 11 for a European “Green Deal,” which aims to make the entire continent carbon neutral by 2050.
“Our aim is for the European Union to be ready for the next [U.N. summit] in Glasgow with a comprehensive proposal, including a proposed climate law, that will show the world there is a way to be climate neutral by 2050,” Frans Timmermans, European Commission executive vice president, said Dec. 12.
But with few new commitments to carbon cuts before the end of 2020, there’s a palpable tension in the corridors of the conference, known as COP25.
Outside the negotiating rooms, young protesters are driving the conversation about climate ambition. About 200 protesters demanding that countries take immediate climate action were ejected from the COP25 venue on Dec. 11, but allowed to return Dec. 12.
The activists are drawing attention to the mounting scientific research that shows the climate crisis is dire.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Dec. 10 released its 2019 Arctic Report Card showing that the region is quickly warming to the point that thawing permafrost is releasing as much as 600 million tons of carbon in the form of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere annually.
Those emissions accelerate global warming, heating the Arctic even more and melting more sea ice and permafrost, creating a snowballing methane feedback loop with global climate consequences.
As the Greenland ice sheet increases its melt, contributing to rising seas as the globe warms, human fossil fuel emissions continue unabated, putting the planet on a trajectory for 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the century’s end, according to last month’s U.N. Environment Program “Emissions Gap” report.
The report says countries are failing to come close to meeting the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels while preventing it from ever topping 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
‘Let’s Not Wait’
But negotiations over how to proceed with a 2020 call for tougher climate targets continue sputtering, observers say.
Waskow said COP25 language that would have laid out a timeline in 2020 for countries to announce greater emissions cuts had been removed on Dec. 11 in a draft of the final decision document for the negotiations.
That suggests that a mechanism for building political pressure for countries to bolster their climate targets under the Paris Agreement prior to the next round of U.N. talks isn’t likely to exist next year, Waskow said.
“It’s very concerning where we stand, right here,” he said. “At the end of the day, what countries do and how they tackle their Paris commitments is what has real consequences.”
Real consequences of climate change are going to be felt acutely among the globe’s low-lying islands, especially those in the Pacific Ocean, Ilisapeci Masivesi, project manager and adviser at Oxfam in the Pacific, said at the talks on Dec. 12.
“How long do we continue to sit here, how long do we deliberate on this action? Where is the action?” she said. “Let’s not wait for Glasgow. It has to start here.”
Cuts Not Enough
Scientists say merely cutting carbon dioxide emissions won’t be enough to stop humanity from the worst of climate change.
Countries will have to use giant fans, expanded forests and other methods to scrub decades’ worth of emissions from the air to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, according to the science that forms the basis of the Paris pact.
“Everything we’ve put into the atmosphere stays here. Any carbon emissions at all will give us a warmer climate,” Peter Wadhams, a University of Cambridge ocean physicist, said at COP25 Dec. 12.
“If we reduce our emissions, all that happens is our climate warms more slowly. We just roast more slowly,” he said. “The only answer is to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
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