World leaders convened at the UN this week in support of the historic deal, but epic challenges lie ahead if the promises of Paris are going to be put into action
April 22, 2016 — World leaders have failed to come to grips with the epic challenge of phasing out fossil fuels and running the entire global economy almost entirely on clean energy by the middle of this century, experts said this week.
While more than 170 countries converged at the United Nations on Friday to demonstrate their support for the landmark deal to fight climate change reached at Paris last December, economists and scientists warned the accord’s goal of keeping temperatures below 1.5-2°C may already be slipping beyond reach.
So far, the commitments covered by the Paris agreement would allow warming of about 2.7°C, according to the UN’s own estimates – which would unleash rising seas, extreme heat and other upheavals.
“While we should be celebrating the signing ceremony on Friday we need to be aware of the gap, where the current contributions add up to and where we need to go,” said Shane Tomlinson, a senior research fellow in energy and climate change at Chatham House.
Countries have to operate on two distinct time lines as they put the promises of Paris into action. First is the next five years, when they will need to radically increase emissions cuts to avoid locking out a 2°C future.Second is the long term, when they must put plans in place for a late 21st-century economy powered almost entirely by clean energy, the experts said.
The US – despite Barack Obama’s strong advocacy for climate action and a flurry of climate initiatives over the past two and a half years – has yet to engage in the long-term thinking needed for a historic economic transition, according to Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a special advisor to Ban Ki-moon.
“Why is it that with an administration that is gung-ho on climate we are in the eighth year and there is no plan at all? No sketch, no white paper, no scenario to 2050?” Sachs told a gathering this week.
Most countries’ plans do not look beyond 2030 – despite agreement in Paris to begin phasing out greenhouse gas emissions completely by the middle of the century.
Planning for a zero-carbon economy by mid-century demands long lead times, decades even, because it involves major decisions about power plants and transmission lines, building codes and vehicle standards, Sachs said.
But most countries were still not looking as far down the road as 2050 – including the US. Obama, despite a flurry of climate initiatives since 2013, had yet to produce a coherent long-term plan for a 21st-century post-carbon economy, Sachs said.
At the start of his presidency, Obama pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. “The goal has been around since the beginning of the Obama administration. But as far as I know you can’t find out even one document that sketches out how this would be accomplished,” Sachs said.
The near-universal support for the Paris agreement would avoid the backsliding that followed the Kyoto protocol of the 1990s, experts said.
But the very nature of the deal – which gained widespread support precisely because its decentralized structure allows countries to set their own emissions cutting targets – makes it difficult to make big changes fast.
Leaders would need the support of business and campaign groups to turn economies around swiftly.
Some countries, including the US, face multiple challenges to their leaders’ efforts to cut emissions. Obama’s rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants face a legal challenge from states and industry groups. Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, has expressed doubts even about the existence of climate change.
China and India, while committing publicly to cut emissions, have also cracked down on campaign groups that would keep them to account, Tomlinson said.
And climate pollution continued to rise in the 25 years it took negotiators to reach a deal.
“The problem is that over the last decade we haven’t decarbonized our energy system. We have carbonised our energy system,” said Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for climate change research.
Countries needed to radically ramp up ambition now – before 2020 – to avoid locking out the future of a 2°C future, he said.
If countries wait until 2030, the date envisaged in the Paris agreement, they would have to cut global emissions by 6% a year to keep the 2°C goal in sight.
“The longer we wait for effective climate policy, the more severe and the more traumatic will be the emissions reductions in the future,” he said.