If Nations Keep Their Promises, 2 Degrees of Warming Is Within Reach

In this view from an airplane rivers of meltwater carve into the Greenland ice sheet near Sermeq Avangnardleq glacier on Aug. 4, 2019 near Ilulissat, Greenland. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
In this view from an airplane rivers of meltwater carve into the Greenland ice sheet near Sermeq Avangnardleq glacier on Aug. 4, 2019 near Ilulissat, Greenland. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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There is still a good chance that humanity can prevent some of the most dire consequences of global warming by the end of the century, so long as all the pledges made under the Paris Agreement since last year’s global climate talks are carried out on time, new research has found. But while that conclusion provides some reason for optimism, the study’s authors warn that the outcome depends on governments getting serious about drastically reducing the world’s rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions. 

By evaluating the latest promises made at COP26 last October, a study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature concluded that there is now a slightly higher than 50 percent chance global warming can be kept from rising an average of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if governments adhere strictly to the timelines of their pledges.

Those pledges include 154 nations that promised to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 76 that promised to reach “net zero emissions” by 2050—although China promised to do this by 2060 and India by 2070. Reaching net zero emissions, at least in theory, means that those countries would either no longer emit greenhouse gases or they would remove from the atmosphere as much as they release so that their net contribution to global warming would be zero.

The study’s finding is a positive development, considering that before the October climate talks, scientists projected a less than 50 percent chance of keeping warming below that threshold and said the world was on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Scientists have warned that any warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most ambitious target under the Paris Agreement, would result in serious consequences for humans and wildlife, including significant sea level rise, drastic biodiversity loss and major increases in extreme weather events.

Still, the researchers involved in the Nature study made sure to caveat their findings, noting that even though many countries have now pledged to reduce their emissions and set specific timelines for doing so, the vast majority aren’t taking the appropriate steps to achieve their goals.

“There’s a slightly better than 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees or below, if countries meet all of their net-zero commitments,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate modeling scientist who co-authored an attached commentary to the new study, told me. But “that’s a very big if, given that many countries like the U.S. have domestic politics that make it tough to translate those sort of commitments into the near-term action we need to get there.”

In many ways, the world has gone backwards on climate since COP26, especially in recent months as world leaders have looked for ways to punish Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. With Russia supplying much of Europe and Asia with oil, gas and coal, many Western countries, including the United States, have begun to increase their own production of fossil fuels as a way to cut off a major source of income for Russia and temper already record-high global energy costs.

And in a trend that has especially concerned climate campaigners, 2021 also saw a resurgence in coal-fired power—an industry that many analysts believed had already peaked and was well on its way out. In the U.S., for example, emissions soared last year after annual coal use grew for the first time since 2014.

In fact, funding for fossil fuels has only grown since 2016, the first year after the Paris Agreement was adopted, according to a new report from several environmental groups. Fossil fuel financing from the world’s 60 largest banks has reached $4.6 trillion since the signing of the climate accord, with $742 billion in fossil fuel financing in 2021 alone, that report found.

Wednesday’s study also made clear that the path to keeping global warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius is now almost entirely out of reach unless the countries most responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions—including the United States, the European Union and China—dramatically and quickly change the ways they produce energy, move around and grow and consume their food. Meeting that scenario now has just a 6 to 10 percent probability of coming true, the study said.

For Hausfather, however, the main takeaway from the study should be “cautious optimism.” It shows that there is still time to mitigate the climate crisis and “put some of the darker climate futures more firmly out of reach,” he said.

“I think it’s really up to us as citizens now to hold politicians’ feet to the fire,” he said. 

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

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