Pledged emissions cuts are a ‘good step,’ but more is needed, U.N. says

By Lisa Friedman | 10/30/2015 08:14 AM EDT

Countries’ collective pledges toward a new international climate change agreement put the goal of averting catastrophic warming within sight, a sweeping new U.N. report out today finds.

Countries’ collective pledges toward a new international climate change agreement put the goal of averting catastrophic warming within sight, a sweeping new U.N. report out today finds.

If all nations fully implement their targets, about 4 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions will be eliminated from the atmosphere by 2030, according to the report. The level of emissions produced by every person on Earth will also dip about 9 percent by that year.

And while the pledges are not enough to keep global temperatures from rising above the scientifically agreed-upon threshold of 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, leaders said the efforts significantly improve the chances of getting there.


"We are moving in the direction of bringing the temperature down toward the final defense line that governments have established of staying under 2 degrees," said U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres.

Speaking from Berlin, where the synthesis report was released, Figueres cited International Energy Agency findings that if the targets were fully implemented, average temperatures would rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100. Without any new action, levels could rise as high as 5 degrees.

"It is a very good step. It is actually a remarkable step. But it is not enough," Figueres said of the targets, known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). Still, she argued, the pledges from 156 countries large and small, wealthy and poor, show the world is "truly, incontrovertibly and very decisively moving down the transition toward a low-carbon economy."

The INDCs will make up the core of the new accord expected to be signed in Paris in December. Just how, though, remains unclear. Currently the targets are listed on the United Nations’ website but won’t have legal standing until they become embedded in a new international agreement.

Environmental activists said they are heartened by the number of countries that are moved to action but said pressure must remain on nations to both improve their targets and build a way in the Paris deal to regularly review and ratchet up carbon-cutting commitments.

"The Paris agreement has not yet been sealed, but is already raising our sights about what’s possible," Jennifer Morgan, global director of the World Resources Institute’s climate change program, said in a statement.

"Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible," she said.

Post-Paris agenda taking shape

Nigel Purvis, CEO of the consulting group Climate Advisers and a former U.S. negotiator in the Clinton administration, said the targets show the world "is waking up." But, he said, "It is equally clear that we need to do more.

"The pledges only get us halfway to 2 degrees. Finding the way to cut the other half of global emissions has to be the priority of the post-Paris climate agenda. And that means countries need to work together and form innovative partnerships. These partnerships will cut climate pollution where it is growing most: the developing world," he said.

In an op-ed in the Financial Times yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry pointed to efforts to curb the super-greenhouse gases hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol as a place to help bridge the gap.

"The fact is that we need to seize every opportunity — before, during and after Paris — to make progress," Kerry wrote.

He called an upcoming meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, of the signatories to the Montreal Protocol "the most compelling immediate opportunity" to reduce production and consumption of a key pollutant.

"When it comes to climate change, big wins do not come often or easily. This is a rare opportunity to make genuine progress. The Montreal Protocol has a proven record, and an HFC amendment could avoid 0.5C of warming by the end of the century," he wrote, adding, "It would also show the world that we are ready for a new chapter in the climate fight. If we can reach an agreement on HFCs in Dubai, we will lay the groundwork for even greater co-operation toward a successful outcome in Paris."

Figueres noted that of the 119 INDCs reviewed — based on those submitted by Oct. 1 — about 75 percent were from developing nations. At least half of all countries mentioned carbon markets and just 25 percent relied on international finance to meet their goals.

The U.N. synthesis report was conducted at the request of countries last year, but China and India moved to prevent a full-blown analysis of countries’ individual ambitions. Those countries also are resisting efforts to develop a routine review of targets after Paris and mechanism for boosting ambition at regular intervals.

Asked in Berlin which countries need to do more to improve their Paris targets, Figueres replied, "all of them."