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Five key takeaways from the UN review of climate targets before Paris

By November 2, 2015 No Comments

On Friday, the UNFCCC Secretariat released its ‘Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions(let’s jut call it the Synthesis Report).

This is the UN’s summary and analysis of the new climate targets for the decade from 2020-2030 that countries have prepared before the crucial Paris talks next month. It’s no secret that the climate talks in Paris will be a big deal for climate action over the next 15 years. But the targets already set this year in over three quarters of the world’s countries are also really, really important.

These targets – known as ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ or ‘INDCs’ (because the UN never misses a chance for an acronym) – will probably become the building blocks for mitigation in the new Paris agreement that we all expect our governments to agree in a repurposed airfield in northeast Paris in about six weeks (you can read more from me about what they are and will mean here).

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By 1 October, when the UN began its analysis, 119 targets had been submitted this year – and because the European Union submitted one target for all 28 member countries, that means that the targets cover 146 countries. Another nine have been submitted in the last month. More than three quarters of all countries have submitted targets, covering over 86% of global carbon pollution. That’s historic.

Half of them include a quantifiable, measurable percentage emissions reduction target – ranging from 9.8% cuts to 90% cuts (New Zealand, sadly, aimed for a paltry 11% reduction from 1990 levels).

According to the UN, all countries have increased their ambition (though it’s not exactly clear how New Zealand has, when its conditional Copenhagen target for 2020 was a 10-20% cut and now we’re aiming for 11% by 2030…). Other countries set a peak year – and still others even set a goal of carbon neutrality.

For the first time, both China and India have submitted mitigation targets, as have numerous other developing states. Overall, 127 countries have committed to absolute emissions reductions – up from only 61 countries before this year, so more than twice as many.

Climate action has gone global. So what can we learn from the UN’s Synthesis Report?

1. It’s going to get warmer. A lot warmer.

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But the news isn’t all good. If all countries achieve their 2030 climate targets but don’t cut emissions any more, we’ll be on track to a three degree warmer world by 2100. The UN predicts that we’re on track for a 2.7ºC warmer world by the end of the century.

Independent analysis from Climate Action Tracker paints a similar picture, saying that the existing pledges give us around a 50/50 chance of keeping warming below 2.7 degrees.

It’s a lot better than what we were looking at before these new targets though. This time last year, the latest projections had put us on track for four, five, or even six degrees of warming.

The new targets – in the UN’s words – mean a ‘substantial slowdown in emissions growth achieved in a cost effective way’. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres claims that they put us on course for carbon neutrality later this century.

2. Adaptation matters.

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It’s no shock then that a lot of countries aren’t just focusing on cutting emissions, but are making real plans for adapting to the warming we will face – and are already facing. One hundred of the 119 – almost 85% – of the new targets include an adaptation plan (unsurprisingly, New Zealand’s doesn’t – even as we plan new sea walls to save our beaches).

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More than half of the plans and targets submitted requested support – especially around adaptation to the very real and already present impacts of climate change. Many expressly addressed plans to face loss and damage – that is, when adaptation fails and climate disaster strikes – so we can expect that to be a hot issue in Paris.

3. But the door to two degrees is still open.

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While many commentators have warned that the Paris deal this December won’t be enough to keep warming below two degrees, the UN stresses that it keeps the chance alive. The Paris deal, Figueres argues, will ‘build a pathway’ to 2ºC. Even the headline of the UN’s press release says we can still keep warming below two degrees:

Global Response to Climate Change Keeps Door Open to 2 Degree C Temperature Limit

So we can do it. Paris will build a foundation, Figueres argues, on which countries can build more plans, more strategies, and more ambition – so cutting emissions more.

4. …or is it?

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But there’s another side to the story. Even though the Synthesis Report stresses that we can still keep warming below 2ºC, the New Scientist doesn’t agree.

Thing is, by the UN’s analysis, if every country that has set a target meets its target, we will still have used up three quarters of our remaining emissions budget to have a two thirds chance of keeping warming below to degrees. Emissions, globally, will still rise.

From the New Scientist:

It is time to start preparing for a world more than 2 °C warmer than now. The UN’s own analysis of what countries are offering to do to limit greenhouse gas emissions shows they fall far short of what’s required. In fact, they suggest the world will have emitted enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet 2 °C by around 2036.

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To put it another way, if all countries meet but don’t better the targets they’ve set this year before 2030, we can only emit one third of what we’re going to emit in the next 15 years over the 70 years left this century if we want just a two thirds chance of limiting warming below 2ºC.

By the UN’s analysis, these new targets mean we will have used up all the carbon we can use within just six years after 2030 – over ten times too fast.  By 2036, we’re cooked.

5. We need to up our game before 2030.

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What all this means is that we can keep warming to below 2ºC – or even below the 1.5ºC target the my Pacific neighbours argue is necessary for their very survival – but that if we lock in the targets already on the table for 2030, it will be really, really, really hard.

Without more cuts by 2030, Climate Action Trackers suggests that we will only have a 10% chance of keeping warming below 2ºC.

That’s just not good enough.

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So, we need the Paris climate deal to include ways to lift our collective global ambition way before 2030. We need a deal that will encourage all countries to up their game regularly.

  • First, countries should agree to a scientific (and equity!) review of their targets before 2020, giving them a reason to deepen their emissions cuts before they even begin.
  • Second, countries should agree to convert the targets into 2025, not 2030 goals, with five yearly cycles, not ten yearly ones.
  • And third, building on those two, we need strict ‘no backsliding’ provisions (so parties can’t pull stunts like the one New Zealand did this year, fronting up with a worse target in Paris than the one it took on in Copenhagen six years ago) and ratchet up mechanisms designed to make sure all countries keep on aiming for higher cuts and lower emissions.

We can’t leave it until 2030. The door to 1.5ºC is still open, but it will slam shut well before 2030 if we let our leaders lock in the targets taken on this year for the next 15 years. These historic, incredible new targets have given us a chance, but it’s up to us to make sure our leaders make that chance a reality.

That’s why I’ve spent the last six months helping to organise New Zealand’s People’s Climate Marches. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people will be marching in the streets of Paris as the big climate talks begin and end. But civil society is moving worldwide. This year, we proved our strength, helping to drive Shell Oil out of the Arctic.

On November 28 and 29, people will take to the streets in their cities and towns in every continent – find an action near you here.

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