The World Has the Right Climate Target — But the Wrong Level of Ambition to Meet This Target

Chris Mooney argues for The Washington Post that the Paris Agreement has chosen the right temperature target for global warming, but lacks the level of ambition we'll need to meet that target.

A record-breaking 195 countries met in Paris in December of last year to adopt a historic agreement on climate change at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21). The agreed upon target of this Paris Agreement limits global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius and is the right target to keep the world safe from grave tipping points, Chris Mooney argues for The Washington Post. The issue, Mooney argues, is that our climate action as it stands will not get us to that target.

Both before and after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, authorities including the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change analyzed the pledges put forward by individuals countries — the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. Their analyses found that the INDCs simply aren’t enough to get up to our less than 2 degree limit, and that without ambitious action on the part of individual countries beyond the commitments made in the INDCs, warming may still peak at temperatures well above 2 degrees Celsius.

A new study in Nature confirms and expounds upon these analyses by not only examining the ambition of the INDCs, but by conducting a meta-analysis of all past analyses that found the Paris Agreement falling short, Mooney reports. The large team of researchers in the Nature study found that the current national pledges are likely to leave the world 2.6 to 3.1 degrees warming than pre-industrial levels — far above the “less than 2 degree” target.

Even more concerning — Mooney notes that “under the pledges, the full carbon “budget” that we have left to emit if we want a good chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of warming could be emitted by 2030, the research finds.” And what’s more, the 2.6 to 3.1 degree number is merely the range that the world would have a 50% chance of not exceeding under the current pledges. The research also finds that there is a 10% chance under this scenario that the world will more than double our target and hit 4 degrees Celsius of warming.

The new analysis also nearly rules out the possibility of meeting the target put forward by small island and climate-vulnerable nations at COP21 — keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. “The window for limiting warming to below 1.5 °C with high probability and without temporarily exceeding that level already seems to have closed,” the study notes — although Mooney notes that “negative emissions” technologies, such as direct air capture of carbon dioxide, may allow the world to cool the world back down to below 1.5 degrees Celsius after warming it.

The moral of this troubling story? Mooney puts it best: “The world needs increased ambition, and it needs it fast.” The Paris Agreement must enter into force in short order, and to do this, 55 countries representing 55% of the world’s emissions must ratify the agreement. At this point, 18 countries have joined on, but collectively these nations account for only 0.18% of the world’s emissions. The world’s biggest emitters — China and the US — have yet to join on, but are expected to do so in the coming months.

In the end, then, the Paris agreement looks like a great breakthrough — and yet only the beginning. Whether its stunning and ambitious goals can be realized lies very much in our hands.

The Paris Agreement was a historic step for climate action, but we must remember that it was only a step. As Mooney says, “In the end, then, the Paris agreement looks like a great breakthrough — and yet only the beginning. Whether its stunning and ambitious goals can be realized lies very much in our hands. Achieving them, meanwhile, suggests a world with far greater unity, and foresight, than we’re seeing at the moment.”

Image: Youth Representative Gertrude Clement joins Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and UN Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio onstage at the UN for the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day | Image Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

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