President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change isn’t the only obstacle facing the global effort to stem temperature rise.
From unchecked deforestation to difficulty financing clean-energy projects in the developing world, the global effort to achieve the targets in the Paris Agreement appears to be falling short even as the issue remains a top priority outside the U.S. The reason for the gap is simple: weaning the world off the fossil fuels that have driven centuries of growth is proving harder than anticipated.
Climate scientists, policy-makers and diplomats hope to come up with a road map to address that challenge when they gather in Katowice, Poland, next December for the annual U.N. climate conference. The gathering, officially billed as a stock–taking exercise, is an opportunity for diplomats to assess whether countries are doing enough to stop the planet from warming to dangerous levels.
In Paris, countries agreed to work to keep temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100. That’s the approximate temperature at which scientists say the planet will begin to experience the worst irreversible effects of climate change: sea-level rise that destroys coastal communities, extreme heat that renders parts of the globe unlivable and agricultural disruption that drives widespread food shortages.
The 2018 conference comes only three years after the Paris Agreement, but diplomats say that’s enough time to look for signs of progress. The affair is part bureaucratic (scientists and negotiators poring over technical documents) and part political pageantry (government ministers and senior officials promoting their country’s work). Some 20,000 people in total are expected to attend the two-week conference, including delegations from virtually every nation, including the U.S.
Countries have introduced a slew of policy measures intended to help meet that target, from transitioning to electric vehicles to implementing energy–efficiency regulations. Most important, coal usage for electricity has declined in favor of cheaper alternatives including natural gas and wind and solar power. Partly thanks to those actions, global -carbon-dioxide emissions for energy use have leveled off since 2014. But that’s not enough: taken together, those policies will only keep temperature rise to 3.2°C (5.8°F), according to data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
This shortfall does not surprise diplomats who have spent their careers negotiating climate-change pacts. Indeed, the gap is in part by design. Negotiators envisioned the Paris Agreement building momentum even after it went into effect with countries choosing to pursue increasingly aggressive carbon-dioxide reduction targets. The gap between the global target and the reality would push even deeper action, or so the deal’s framers thought.
“In Paris, we did not set a mandatory reduction schedule that will guarantee that we will achieve 2°C,” says John Kerry, who participated as Secretary of State in negotiations that resulted in the Paris Agreement. “We knew that leaving Paris, unless a lot of things that happened that are good, we are not going to make it.”
The momentum coming out of that deal took a serious hit just a year later when the U.S. elected Donald Trump as President. Less than five months into office, Trump promised to withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement and revoked the U.S. pledge to reduce -greenhouse-gas emissions. That hurts—both because the U.S. is the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide and because of the central role the country has played in climate negotiations.
Action has also faltered in places with leadership that actively speaks out on the threat of climate change. Political tumult in Germany has made Chancellor Angela Merkel wary of upsetting the country’s coal regions, dimming the chances that the country will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2020 as promised. Canada, Japan, Australia and the E.U. broadly will all need to craft new climate-change-fighting policies to meet their goals, according to a UNEP report.
Still, there are some positive developments. The cost of clean-energy -technology—wind and solar power in particular-—has continued to decline, making it cheaper than coal power in many places. And some countries, including Brazil, Russia and India, are on track to easily meet their commitments. For some, like Russia, that’s because they set targets that are easy to achieve. But others, like India, benefit from expansion of solar and wind power. China in particular has established itself as a new leader in the climate-change fight, halting construction of new coal-fired power plants and pushing electrification in the transport sector. More broadly, China’s government has promoted a clean-energy industry to manufacture products like batteries and solar panels to help the rest of the world transition away from fossil fuels. “There’s no grass growing under the feet of the Chinese,” says Kerry.
Framers of the Paris Agreement envisioned the 2018 session—officially known as the facilitative dialogue—in part as an opportunity to “name and shame” laggards, but the officials charged with running things in 2018 have since moderated their tone, saying they favor a positive approach. By the end of the gathering, they say, the world would have a concrete sense of what needs to come next.
But coming up with a plan and fulfilling it are two different things. And with Trump at the helm in the U.S. and the collective E.U. commitment falling short it remains unclear who else—if anyone—has both the authority and desire to push countries to adopt more aggressive targets that will prevent some of the worst effects of climate change.
“There are good things happening on the emission front,” says Robert Jackson, chair of the department of earth system science at Stanford University. “They’re simply not happening fast enough.”
Beyond national authorities, cities, states and other local governments have tried to position themselves as part of the solution as they use policy to push -renewable-energy sources, energy efficiency and other measures. And planners of next year’s talks are working on the best way to look beyond reluctant national governments as they chart a plan to address climate change. This means giving U.S. governors and mayors a seat at the table in negotiations and factoring their plans to reduce emissions into -climate-change projections
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