The Paris climate pledges are too limited to ensure a less than 2°C temperature rise

Further work needs to be done in order to significantly reduce the effects of climate change. (Photo: China Stringer Network/Reuters)

Further work needs to be done in order to significantly reduce the effects of climate change. (Photo: China Stringer Network/Reuters)

Individual country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions need to be strengthened to limit future climate change to well below the 2°C limit included in the Paris climate agreement, a new assessment has found.

Pledges made for the Paris agree- ment on climate change last year would lead to a global temperature rise of 2.6°C to 3.1°C by the end of the century, according to the new analysis published in the journal Nature. The entire carbon budget for limiting warming to below 2°C might have been emitted by 2030.

“The Paris agreement was a historical achievement for the world’s response to climate change, aiming at limiting warming to below 1.5°C and 2°C. It puts in place a flexible framework for a long-term transformation towards a low-carbon society. But our analysis shows that these measures need to be strengthened in order to have a good chance of keeping warming to well below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C,” said lead author Joeri Rogelj, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria.

Harald Winkler, of the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, was part of the multi-author international team that conducted a meta-analysis of 10 independent studies.

“While some uncertainties, like the temperature response uncertainty, are virtually irreducible over the coming years, uncertainties about what the INDCs [intended nationally determined contributions] add up to in terms of emissions are not. Immediate future work should therefore focus on a better understanding of what the INDCs mean and how they link to other socioeconomic objectives, including the United Nations sustainable development goals,” he said.

Winkler added that, although their article focused on mitigation, an analysis of the “adaptation gap” required further work.

The 2°C target aimed to limit future climate change to an average temperature increase of below 2°C above preindustrial levels, as research suggested that this could help avoid some of the most dangerous effects of climate change.

The target was agreed on by 190 countries at the Cancun climate meeting in 2010. In Paris in December last year, countries strengthened this target by requiring temperatures to be limited to “well below” that and furthermore agreed that they should strive to limit a temperature rise even further, to 1.5°C.

Some studies suggest that even 2°C of warming could lead to unacceptable results, particularly in vulnerable countries such as island nations and least-developed countries.

The new study provides an in-depth analysis of the INDCs that countries submitted at the Paris climate meeting in December. To assess what would happen after the pledge period ends in 2030, the researchers assumed that emission reduction efforts would be continued at the same level after 2030. Based on these projections, and using different models, they estimated that median global temperatures would reach 2.6°C to 3.1°C by 2100. The researchers also examined what additional measures would be necessary after 2030 to limit a future temperature rise to 2°C or 1.5°C in 2100.

Niklas Höhne, a researcher at the NewClimate Institute in Germany and Wageningen University who also worked on the study, said: “To go the rest of the way, we would need to assume much more stringent action after 2030, which leads to emissions reductions of about 3% to 4% per year globally.

“But, in practice, switching to such stringent reductions right after 2030 would be challenging and require time. That means that, in order to ensure a chance of meeting these targets, we need significant further action from countries before 2030.”

Winkler added: “This article provided a systematic overview and identification of the most promising options to reduce emissions in the short term to reduce the challenge after 2030: implementing national measures to overachieve INDCS, increase international co-operation, taking action by companies, cities and subnational governments into account.”

The study also provides a careful analysis of the uncertainties surrounding future emissions and temperature targets. For one thing, the emissions reductions from the INDCs remain uncertain, because the INDCs themselves are not consistently framed, and some of the pledges include conditional statements, for example, that a country will only implement ambitious emissions reductions if it receives funding from others.

Comparing the possible emission levels the INDCs could imply, the researchers found a range of uncertainties equivalent to six billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or roughly the entire emissions of the United States in the year 2012.

A major uncertainty lies in how much temperatures will rise in response to various emission levels. For this reason, temperature targets are often interpreted in terms of probabilities, with the aim to have a 66% likelihood of keeping temperature to below 2°C above preindustrial levels.

The study also found that the same INDCs would only avoid 2.9°C to 3.4°C of warming with a 66% chance, and 3.5°C to 4.2°C of warming with a 90% chance until 2100.

The IIASA energy programme director, Keywan Riahi, said: “Our study clearly shows that the current national [INDC] plans are too incremental and thus inconsistent with the long-term ambition from the Paris agreement. If we want to keep 2°C within reach, we’ll need much more rapid and fundamental changes. The hope is that the post-Paris policy process can deliver this.”

Elijah Moholola is the head of media liaison in the communication and marketing department of the University of Cape Town

 

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