We are seeing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,* but according to 10 recently published, authoritative scientific reports and studies, we are not doing anywhere near enough to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement.
We have seen hopeful progress that includes the prodigious growth of renewable sources of energy, and the uptake of electric vehicles. The world’s largest economy passed landmark climate legislation, and courts have ruled in support of climate action. We have seen a wide range of conservation efforts and ever-increasing protected areas along with unprecedented restoration and reforestation efforts all around the world.
We are also acting to decrease emissions. The U.N. cites a growing coalition of 70 countries, more than 1000 cities, and 1000 businesses that have pledged to zero out emissions. More than 3,000 businesses and financial institutions are working with the Science-Based Targets Initiative to reduce GHGs. Recently over 130 companies representing nearly $1 trillion in global annual revenues sent a letter to heads of state calling on governments to set targets and timelines to fully phase out unabated fossil fuels and halve emissions this decade.
At COP 21 in 2015 the world made a commitment to lower and ultimately eliminate GHG emissions, but 8 years later we are still not on track. Except for a COVID-related lull in 2020, emissions keep increasing and 2023 is on track to set another global emissions record.
At the current rate of approximately 40 billion tonnes of emissions per year, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) projects that we will permanently cross the 500 billion tonne limit in the 2030s. The IPCC has concluded that we require 43 percent emissions cuts by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and net zero by 2050. According to this timeline, emissions must peak before 2025 and if we fail, we will not be able to keep temperatures from breaching the upper threshold temperature limits (1.5-2 Celsius above preindustrial norms).
The latest UNFCCC NDC Synthesis Report found that rather than decline, we are on track to see emissions increase by almost 10 percent by 2030. The report concluded that efforts to reduce emissions are “strikingly misaligned” with what is actually being done. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, the “chasm between need and action is more menacing than ever.” According to the U.N. Global Stocktake, our current trajectory is pushing us past the upper-temperature threshold limit. Currently, atmospheric concentration of CO2 is higher than at any time in at least 2 million years and we are rapidly eating away at our remaining carbon budget.
Carbon budget study
Recent research published in the journal, Nature Climate Change, suggests our carbon budget may be even smaller than we thought. This study leverages an improved understanding of atmospheric physics to suggest that due to increasing emissions, we will blow through the upper temperature limit this decade which is much sooner than previously thought. According to this data, our remaining carbon budget has been cut in half to 250 billion tonnes, which means we could breach the upper emissions threshold in 6 years. The implication is that we will have to reach net zero by 2034 rather than 2050. Niklas Höhne, one of the people involved in the study, was quoted by the BBC as saying the research is an “emergency mode” call to cut emissions every way we can and as quickly as we can.
According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report titled, Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations in Net Zero Transitions, the fossil fuel industry is responsible for the majority of the world’s 40.5 billion tons (36.8 billion metric tons) of GHG emissions in 2022. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2023, anticipates a decline in demand for fossil fuels, but as agency’s Executive Director Fatih Birol declared in an op-ed post for the Financial Times, the decline in demand is “nowhere near steep enough”. As explained in the report Net Zero by 2050 we need to completely transform the global energy system.
A report from the World Resources Institute titled, State of Climate Action 2023 concludes that with the exception of electric vehicles, we are failing to do what we must to draw down emissions. Sophie Boehm, research associate at the WRI and lead author of the report, said: “Global efforts to limit warming to 1.5C are lackluster at best. Despite decades of dire warnings and wake-up calls, our leaders have largely failed to mobilize climate action anywhere near the pace and scale needed. Such delays leave us with very few routes to secure a livable future for all.”
The Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA) is the most authoritative scientific report documenting the impacts of climate change in the US. The NCA 5 is clear and unequivocal in saying that human activities are decisively moving us towards a potentially catastrophic future where we see temperatures increase to between 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit. The NCA calls for massive cuts in GHG emissions with the goal of net zero CO2 emissions.
Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are now 50 percent higher than they were before the start of the industrial revolution. This is just one of the findings in the most recent World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report titled Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. “Atmospheric CO2 reached 149% of the pre-industrial level in 2021, primarily because of emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels,” the report stated. GHGs reached a record high in 2022 pushing us to levels not seen in as much as 5 million years when temperatures were at least 2 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today, sea levels were also as much as 20 meters higher than they are today. According to the report, atmospheric carbon accounts for 80 percent of the heating we have experienced since 1990. The WMO report concluded that with no end in sight to fossil fuel-driven increases in GHGs we urgently need much bolder government policies.
Call to action
It is not a coincidence that nine separate reports have all come to the conclusion that we are not doing enough to reign in emissions. They all say, as if with one voice, that we need to act now to keep temperatures from surpassing the upper threshold limit.
Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a contributor to the NCA 5 report, was unequivocal in her call for immediate action. “The science is irrefutable: we must swiftly reduce heat-trapping emissions and enact transformational climate adaptation policies in every region of the country to limit the stampede of devastating events and the toll each one takes on our lives and the economy,” Dahl said. We know what will happen if we fail to act. As explained in research published in Science.org, “Without sufficiently deep near-term emissions cuts, temperatures are projected to rise beyond acceptable levels.”
Global cooperation is critical, and the recent re-engagement of China and the U.S. on emissions reduction is a positive sign, but success will ultimately be determined by whether we end our addiction to fossil fuels. The decisions we make today will determine the kind of world we have tomorrow. We still have time, and we know what we must do, but we must act now starting with science-based public policy that reduces our reliance on hydrocarbons.
COP 21 was not the first time the world came together to secure a sweeping global agreement. In the 1990s we addressed acid rain by limiting the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that power plants can release into the air. In 1987 we implemented the Montreal Protocol and phased out ozone-depleting substances (ODS).** Now a mountain of evidence is calling us to phase out fossil fuels.
* There are 7 primary GHGs contributing to the heating of the planet: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). However, carbon is the focus of most of our efforts because it is the most prevalent GHG.
**Ozone-depleting substances (ODS) include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), halons, methyl bromide, carbon tetrachloride, hydrobromofluorocarbons, chlorobromomethane, and methyl chloroform.