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The Global Fight Against Climate Change Just Stalled. The Clock to Restart It Is Ticking

5 minute read

When President Donald Trump announced last year that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change, other world leaders pledged that they would not slow their own efforts down.

But the fight against climate change has now hit a roadblock.

Several key countries are not meeting the commitments they laid out to reduce emissions even before the Paris Agreement was negotiated, heightening concerns about ongoing negotiations on how to implement the global climate pact.

Here in San Francisco, where California Gov. Jerry Brown has convened a summit of government officials, climate activists and environmental policymakers, enthusiasm runs high for a wide range of climate change initiatives that will move the needle on global emissions, but top figures in the climate world also acknowledge that current efforts are not enough to stem serious climate change.

“The world is not achieving the goals under Paris. It’s stalled,” Brown tells TIME. “We’ve got to wake up.”

A report released last year by the United Nations Environment Programme showed that current commitments will result in temperatures rising more than 5.5°F by 2100, far short of the goal of keeping temperature rise below 3.6°F. And countries aren’t even living up those promises. The report pointed to a long list of G20 countries who were not on track to keep their promises to cut emissions: Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and the U.S.

The report was intended to galvanize countries into action, but progress has remained stagnant since then. An attempt to implement a strong climate change policy toppled the Australian Prime Minister last month, killing any chance that the country will reach its goal. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to forge ahead with national carbon pricing has received pushback that threatens its survival, not to mention his own political chances in his reelection campaign next year.

Some leaders at the E.U. — including the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker — have sought more aggressive action, but have received pushback from member states. Germany in particular has remained reluctant, with Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffing efforts to tighten E.U. emissions standards even as political leaders acknowledge the country will fall short of its commitments.

“Germany is going to fail its climate goal,” Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, a state secretary at Germany’s Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, tells TIME. “Now every sector needs to contribute.”

U.N. negotiations on how to implement the Paris Agreement have lagged so much that officials called an extra meeting this month ahead of the pre-planned U.N. climate conference in December in Poland. That conference resulted in “uneven progress,” according to Patricia Espinosa, who heads the U.N. Climate Change program.

Of course, the biggest climate change laggard is the U.S. The Trump Administration continues to rollback climate regulation and has sought to rebuild the coal industry, a chief emitter of carbon dioxide. A coalition of U.S. cities, states and businesses that formed in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull out of Paris has sought to make up the lost ground with their own emissions reductions programs, and a report released Wednesday in San Francisco shows the group’s current policies cutting U.S. emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2025. That’s two thirds of the way to President Obama’s commitment.

“Existing commitments are delivering real climate results today,” says Paul Bodnar, a former climate negotiator at the U.S. State Department and now a Managing Director at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Still, despite the optimism even leaders of the coalition say the U.S. government needs to return to the table to tackle climate change seriously. “At the end of the day, the United States has to be on board,” says Brown. “It can’t be AWOL, much less sabotaging everything.”

For those who cheered the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, a group that included heads of government from across the globe, the change in momentum since Trump’s election is stark and would have been hard to fathom in the weeks and months that followed the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement. At the time, countries agreed to the deal unanimously, and it entered into force in just 11 months, a process that often takes years.

A variety of debates have emerged among leaders here in San Francisco over a slew of different plans intended to address the intricacies of climate change — from the best policy mechanism to reduce emissions in the U.S. to the effect warming will have on our health care systems and everything in between.

But climate experts and world leaders engaged on the issue agree that the clock is ticking to sort through those discussions and act as the effects of climate change become more apparent and the costs to address it continue to increase.

“Climate change is moving faster than we are,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres at a speech in New York Monday. “If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences.”

The clock is ticking.

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Write to Justin Worland / San Francisco at justin.worland@time.com