Rules for a safe climate

The annual United Nations climate talks have to kick the Paris agreement up a gear.
Activist in an anti-coal protest

Climate talks in Poland must move world away from coal.Credit: Michele Tantussi/Getty

Delegates to the United Nations climate talks arrived in the old Polish coal-mining town of Katowice at the weekend to learn that the annual meeting faces an uncertain future: incoming Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has withdrawn his country’s offer to hold the event next year. This unwelcome posturing, from a leader who seems likely to oversee renewed deforestation in the Amazon, shows that global warming is far from the top of the political agenda in some countries. But it also acts as a reminder that political cooperation remains the only effective defence we have against the worst effects of climate change — which would mean a more hostile world for us all.

The annual caravan of government representatives, campaigners and negotiators has rolled into Poland for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) with a clear goal. Delegates from more than 190 countries hope to finalize the rules for how the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to no more than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, will be put into practice. Negotiating an acceptable plan for curbing emissions and funding climate action will be a tough task. But given the enormity of the environmental and social challenges ahead, there is a need for more than written rules and good intentions.

The Paris agreement is a hybrid of self-imposed national commitments and binding ‘top-down’ elements, including mandatory emissions reporting and a regular global stock-take of collective progress. Transparent rules and criteria for cooperation among nations, including systems that link countries’ individual actions through international carbon markets, are essential for the success of an agreement otherwise plagued by the voluntary nature of national climate targets.

Despite decades of international climate diplomacy, global greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now at a level that Earth hasn’t experienced for several million years. Since 1900, global temperatures have already increased by 1 °C — with inescapable consequences. Raging forest fires last month in drought-stricken California are a clear warning sign of what a warmer future might hold in store.

A special report released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that time is running out to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Realistically, that horse has already bolted. To keep warming to 2 °C — which would still all but guarantee severe environmental effects — global emissions would need to shrink by at least one-quarter by 2030, and drop to almost zero by 2050. But according to a report released last week by the UN EnvironmentProgramme, there is a huge gap between nations’ self-imposed targets and the amount of action that is needed to stabilize the climate.

In particular, the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters, including China, the United States and the European Union, must significantly step up their own efforts to tackle climate change. But will they? US President Donald Trump has already said that the United States will pull out of the Paris agreement, claiming it is bad for the economy. But a report issued by 13 federal agencies in November found that the US economy could shrink by as much as 10% by 2100 if little is done to reduce global warming, and several US states and cities have unveiled their own ambitious emissions-reduction pledges.

Whether China will be able and willing to decarbonize its fossil-fuel-based economy in due time is uncertain, despite encouraging signals from the leadership. China’s emissions reporting and verification practices are notoriously non-transparent. The Paris rulebook aims to bolster these mechanisms, and China must show its support for this.

The EU seems best placed to take climate policies to a higher level (of ambition, at least). Ahead of the Katowice conference, the European Commission released a set of scenarios for how the bloc can achieve zero net emissions by 2050 — although member states must still agree on the preferred scenario. Poland and other EU countries that rely heavily on coal might oppose more ambitious targets. In Germany, too, the timing and cost of the planned phase-out of coal-powered plants are causing heated debate. But the EU’s initiative is a strong signal that the push for clean energy must involve all sectors of the economy, including industry, transport, building and agriculture.

Katowice, a European coal capital, is an apt place to meditate on the future of fossil fuels. Behind the razzmatazz of these climate-policy talks are simple facts: the world’s policymakers must introduce more and stronger measures to boost investment in clean energy and end the use of dirty fuels. Delay is fundamentally contrary to reason.

Nature 564, 6 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07633-1
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up