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How Far Our Climate Goals Have Slipped Out of Reach, In a Single Chart

3 minute read

The United Nations is sounding the alarm about the world’s inadequate effort to slow climate change. In a series of reports released this week, the international organization makes clear that emissions are not falling fast enough to stop global temperatures from rising 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

One of the reports released on Wednesday, which analyzes the most recent mitigation plans (called Nationally Determined Contributions, or “NDCs”) issued by the 193 countries under the Paris Climate Agreement, finds that we’re on track to increase emissions by 10.6% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels—a trajectory that would bump temperatures 2.5°C by 2100.

Another report released on Thursday, which dives deeper into the gap between our emissions plans and our climate goals, illustrates our poor chances of getting the job done. If countries continue with their current policies, there’s a 20% chance of global warming exceeding 3°C. If they follow the climate action promises outlined in their NDCs, those odds drop to about 13%.

To avoid tipping past the 1.5°C threshold, global emissions need to be cut by about half in the next eight years. The only scenario where there’s a chance of that happening, as the below chart shows, is if G20 and other high-emitting countries go beyond their NDCs and achieve net-zero targets, too. The UN notes, however, that this scenario is optimistic.

While all parties to the Paris Agreement are obligated to have an NDC and to pursue the measures within it, each country decides for itself what its climate mitigation goals should look like—and those goals aren’t legally binding. Net-zero emissions targets are often even more toothless because only a handful of countries have a meaningful road map to achieve them.

The lack of substantive action year after year means that the odds of being in the 1.5°C to 2°C range are shrinking as the odds of falling in the 2.5°C to 3°C range are growing. That kind of temperature difference may seem like a marginal shift on paper, but it’s a dramatic shift in reality. According to Carbon Brief, which outlines how life would transform in different warming scenarios, average drought length stretches from two months at 1.5°C to four months at 2°C. The share of plants that would no longer have a suitable climate to grow doubles from 8% to 16%. And, by the end of the century, the number of people in coastal areas who are flooded jumps from 60 million people per year to 72 million per year.

The sobering UN reports come one month before the parties meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to further climate talks. At last year’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, attendees were blunt about the slim chances of meeting the 1.5°C goal, which was originally set in 2015. Now, the reality is even clearer—and the stakes are even higher to meaningfully address impending catastrophe.

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