As climate talks end, it is time for action

Worrying disconnect between emissions rhetoric and real-world trends highlights urgent need for nations to honour their pledges.
A hot air balloon flown by Greenpaeace in Bonn that looks like Earth

A Greenpeace protest balloon at the United Nations climate-change meeting in Bonn, Germany.Fotoholica Press/Getty

It will not go down in history as a great moment of climate diplomacy. But the United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, that ended last week did have their moments. One was the indignant jeering with which audience members and protesters met a White House delegation attempting to justify US President Donald Trump’s take on climate and energy policy. Otherwise, two years after the triumph of reaching the Paris agreement on climate change, delegates were largely preoccupied with the important work of finessing the rules and technicalities of that landmark deal.

Few expected the 23rd Conference of the Parties — the first since the United States announced its intention to quit the Paris accord — to produce more than incremental progress. Opening the two-week meeting, Prime Minister of Fiji Frank Bainimarama invoked the “talanoa spirit” — a term used in his small Pacific state to describe inclusive and transparent dialogue. His plea underlined the push, led by poorer countries disproportionately vulnerable to the consequences of global warming, for accelerated climate action by the world’s leading economies.

It is a dire political setback that the United States, the world’s largest economy (and second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China), intends to leave the Paris agreement in 2020. But market forces will bolster the expansion of carbon-cutting efforts in the US energy and transport sectors, regardless. And several US states, cities and large companies have promised to honour the Paris goals. In Bonn, the more than 170 parties, including the European Union, that have ratified the agreement pledged solidarity.

Unfortunately, data released while the talks were happening highlight a worrying disconnect between rhetoric and real-world trends. After three years in which global CO2 emissions have remained flat, they will probably surge by 2% in 2017, reaching a new record level, according to researchers with the Global Carbon Project. And despite countries’ commitments to cut carbon, the global demand for fossil fuels is set to rise until at least 2040, according to this year’s World Energy Outlook, released last week by the International Energy Agency. Emissions are exceedingly unlikely to peak earlier.

In fact, many industrialized countries — including Japan, Germany and the EU — are struggling to meet their climate goals. By contrast, China is on track to reach its emissions peak before its 2030 target, although its coal consumption seems to have surged again this year. Reliance on coal for electricity also hampers progress in India, which is expected to contribute almost one-third of the projected 30% rise in global energy demand by 2040. For conference hosts Germany, often regarded as a leaders in the race for clean energy, it is embarrassing that coal comprises 40% of its power mix.

Even if — and it is a huge if — all countries meet their current Paris pledges, the world will probably heat up by substantially more than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, with grave consequences for ecosystems and societies. Countries must do more, and must be more transparent in their plans and achievements. In particular, they must strive to break free of the coal trap. A worldwide carbon-pricing scheme would be the most effective way to phase out burning of the cheapest, most plentiful and, alas, dirtiest fossil energy source. At the least, governments should clearly lay out the steps and incentives — taxes, carbon-pricing schemes or clean-technology subsidies, for example — through which they hope to reduce emissions, and should be candid about what efforts will cost. Countries should also open up their national pledges for review by scientists and economists, to increase trust and transparency.

Science can help in other ways. Fair burden sharing depends on reliable methods of reporting and verifying human-caused CO2 emissions. Research funders must provide sustained support for accurate atmospheric measurements to allow carbon researchers to disentangle emissions from human activity and natural processes.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing a special report on the impacts of 1.5 °C of warming, due for release next October. It is sure to add urgency to the next round of climate talks. But for nations, regions, cities, companies and individuals, the need for yet more action is immediate.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07273-x
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