As world leaders gather in Glasgow for a United Nations climate summit next week, the focus will be on a crucial number: How hotter will the Earth become? And how do we keep that number as small as possible?
Humans have so far warmed the planet 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, mainly by burning coal, oil and gas for energy, and cutting down forests, which help absorb the planet’s generated heat emissions. from the use of fossil fuels. Mankind is already paying a high price: This year alone, hot waves killed hundreds of people in the Northwest Pacific, floods devastated Germany and China, and wildfires spiraled out of control in Siberia, Turkey, and California.
How much worse can things get?
To understand this, scientists at Climate action tracker, a research group, regularly reviews all the climate and energy policies that countries have adopted around the world. They then assess the effect of these policies on future greenhouse gas emissions and calculate how much an increase in temperature the world can expect.
It is a simple measure of progress to date in combating climate change. And the data provide reasons for hope and alarm.
How things improved
In 2014, Climate Action Tracker rated that the world was ready on the right track 4 degrees Celsius of heat by 2100, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The 4 degree heat has long been considered the worst case scenario. A ASSESSMENT from the World Bank researched the risks, such as global cascading crop failures, and bluntly concluded that 4 degrees simply should not be allowed to occur.
This year, however, Climate Action Tracker made a more optimistic picture as countries began to do more to curb their emissions. Current policies put the world on pace approx 2.9 degrees Celsius of heat by 2100. (This is a better estimate: the possible range is between 2.1 degrees and 3.9 degrees Celsius.)
The United Nations will publish its analysis of global climate efforts on Tuesday, although it has reached similar conclusions in the past.
There has been a real change over the last decade, said Niklas Hhne, a German climatologist and founding partner of the NewClimate Institute, which created the Climate Action Tracker. You can say that progress has been very slow, that it is still not enough, and I agree with all of this. But we see real movement.
There are several reasons for improving the outlook.
In 2015, 195 countries signed the Paris climate agreement, which for the first time required each country to submit a plan to curb emissions. While the plans were voluntary, they helped spur new action: the European Union tight hats on industrial emissions. China and India boost renewable energy. Egypt reduce subsidies for fossil fuels. Indonesia began cracking down on illegal deforestation.
Along the way, there were blizzards. The Trump administration rejected some key climate policies. Deforestation in Brazil grew under President Jair Bolsonaro.
But overall, countries are doing more than they did a decade ago.
Equally important, clean energy progressed much faster than anticipated. A decade ago, solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles were often seen as warm technologies, very expensive for widespread use. But the costs have fallen a lotwith
Today, wind and solar energy are the cheapest source of electricity in most markets. Sales of electric vehicles are setting records. Automobile manufacturers like Ford and General Motors are now preparing to gradually reduce sales of petrol cars in the coming years.
At the same time, coal power, a major source of emissions, has begun to wane. A decade ago, China and India were building new coal-fired power plants almost every week. But as clean energy alternatives have matured and climate activists have stepped up pressure on banks and governments to stop financing coal, the pace has slowed: Following the Paris Agreement, a recent study was discovered, 76 percent of proposals for new coal plants have been canceled.
All of this has made a difference. Between 2000 and 2010, global emissions grew by an average of 3 percent per year. But between 2011 and 2019, emissions grew more slowly, approximately 1 percent per year.
The International Energy Agency now projects global carbon dioxide emissions potentially peaking by mid-2020, then gradually starting to fall.
This would put the world at a rate of warming slightly less than 3 degrees by 2100, although it is still unclear whether current policies will work as intended and how sensitive the Earth’s climate actually is to our greenhouse gas emissions.
However, scientists warn, that number is not something to celebrate. Yes, 3 degrees is much less nightmare than 4 degrees. But it is extremely dangerous.
Consider the large ice sheets on top of Greenland and West Antarctica, which together hold enough water to raise global sea levels nearly 40 meters and sink many of the world’s largest coastal cities. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned that at steady levels of global warming between 2 degrees and 3 degrees, those ice sheets can melt irreversibly for thousands of years until they disappear almost completely, condemning future generations to a massive and relentless increase in the level of sea for centuries to come.
We know there are big turning points in the climate system, and once we get past them, it’s too late to go back, said Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored a study finding that a 3-degree trajectory could lead to a sudden jump in the Antarctic melting rate as early as 2060.
Promises on paper
As governments wake up to the risk, they are committed to doing more. But so far, their promises often only exist on paper.
Ahead of the Glasgow summit, at least 140 seats have officially updated their plans to curb emissions by 2030, according to the World Resources Institute. The United States and the European Union pledged to pursue deeper cuts. Indonesia and Mexico pledged to slow future growth in fossil fuel use. But other major issuers, such as China and India, have not yet updated their short-term plans.
If countries deliver on these new promises, the Climate Action Observer estimates, the world will potentially be on track to keep the heat around. 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, although temperatures would continue to rise thereafter.
But that’s a big deal if.
Many promises have not yet been backed up by concrete policies, and countries are not all on track to deliver on them. A recent study by the Rhodium Group found that even if the Biden administration implemented a comprehensive package of climate measures including hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy spending that remains blocked in Congress and individual states adopt stricter rules, The United States will hardly stand in the way of achieving its goal.
And that’s not the hard part. In recent years, more than 50 countries plus the European Union have formally pledged to reach zero emissions, which is essentially a promise to stop greenhouse gases from rising too much by a certain date. The United States said it would reach zero by 2050. China said it would try to get there by 2060.
In theory, these goals can have a powerful impact. Climate action tracker ratings that if any country fulfills its net zero promise, the world could potentially limit warming to about 2 degrees Celsius from the end of the century.
But these plans will require extremely rapid reductions in fossil fuel use by power plants, factories and vehicles, as well as potentially new technologies to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Many zero-sum goals remain largely aspirational, and most governments have not yet established credible plans for achieving them.
You can see the glass half full or half empty, said Dr. Hhne. The half-finished story is that countries have good intentions and are sending the right signals to investors. The half-empty story is that none of the countries that have pledged to go to zero have enough short-term policies to put themselves on the right track.
A narrow road ahead
Although mankind has gotten rid of the climate problem over the last decade, scientists have made progress as well. And their findings are appalling: They have gathered stronger evidence that even small temperature rises can be very harmful.
In other words, the goalposts have moved.
When the Paris Agreement was signed, the nations agreed that they should keep total global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and make a confident effort to stay at 1.5 degrees. But in the years since then, a host of studies have found that 2 degrees heat is much more harmful than 1.5 degrees.
That extra half scale sounds small, but could mean tens of millions of people worldwide exposed to life-threatening heat waves, water scarcity and coastal flooding. Half a degree can mean the difference between a world of coral reefs and the ice of the Arctic summer sea and a world without them.
We were already seeing today, at just 1 degree heat, that some social systems are more vulnerable to disruption than previously thought, said Joeri Rogelj, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London.
In response, a growing number of world leaders, including President Biden, have said the world must adhere to 1.5 degrees of heat, although some countries like China have not embraced the stricter goal.
However 1.5 degrees is a much harder target to hit than 2 degrees or 3 degrees. It is not enough that global emissions peak in the coming years and then gradually fall. Instead, global fossil fuel emissions should fall by roughly half of this decade and then reach net zero by 2050.
This year, the International Energy Agency drew up a roadmap of what it might look like. By 2030, electric vehicles will have to account for more than half of new car sales globally, up from just 5 percent today. By 2035, rich countries should shut down almost all fossil fuel power plants in favor of cleaner technologies such as wind, solar or nuclear power. By 2040, all the remaining coal plants in the world would have to be towed or equipped with technology to capture their carbon emissions and bury them underground. New technologies would be needed to clean up sectors like air travel.
The agency estimates that current policies around the world will provide only one-fifth of the emissions cuts needed this decade to stay on track for 1.5 degrees. Without an immediate and rapid acceleration of action, that climate goal may be elusive within a few years.
The road is extremely narrow, said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. We really do not have much time to change course.
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