Why implementing Paris Agreement is a case of now or never
Climate change has long been seen as a challenge we have decades left to combat, yet a hard-hitting report released on Monday has the stark message that it is a case of “now or never.”
The study from the UN-convened Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global emissions must start declining in under three years, with “immediate and deep cuts,” and be slashed by 43 percent by 2030 if we are to limit the average temperature rise to the 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed under the 2015 Paris Agreement. In short, we are at a crossroads as to whether we will seize the opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe and have a “livable future.”
One of the most alarming findings is that, even if all the policies to cut carbon dioxide emissions that governments put in place by the end of 2020 are fully implemented, the IPCC says the world will still warm by 3.2 C this century. So it is almost inevitable the 1.5 C threshold will be temporarily exceeded, but we could return to below it by the end of the century.
This will, therefore, require big negative emissions in the second half of the century, shortly after 2050, in order to limit warming to 1.5 C. This might include technology to suck carbon dioxide from the skies, which some IPCC participants are highly skeptical of.
These are big asks and it is, therefore, no coincidence that multiple deadlines were missed last week in what was the longest report approval process in the IPCC’s 34-year history. Whatever the future might hold technology-wise by mid-century, there is little doubt that immediate measures are needed.
This includes the rapid expansion of the use of solar panels and wind turbines, which have never been cheaper than they are now, having fallen in cost by about 85 percent over the past decade. We also need to make big changes in terms of diet and lifestyle, such as walking more and eating more healthily, including plant-based foods that have a low environmental impact.
The hard-hitting report may mean pessimism will grow in the coming months about the future of global efforts to combat climate change. However, while the scale of the challenge remains huge, there remains a pathway for a critical mass of countries to ratchet up their emissions cuts to try to meet the targets agreed in Paris.
We are at a crossroads as to whether we will seize the opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe and have a ‘livable future’
To deliver on this agenda, the IPCC makes clear that more money is needed. Finance levels are currently three to six times lower than the levels required to limit warming to below even 2 C by 2030. Indeed, McKinsey estimates that the world needs to invest some $9.2 trillion a year in the infrastructure of the sectors most prone to carbon dioxide emissions in the coming three decades. As a proportion of global gross domestic product, the total investment required would be 6.8 percent, rising to as much as 8.8 percent between 2026 and 2030 before falling — and the transformation becomes more expensive the longer that action is delayed.
While this scale of investment is huge, it is not impossible to deliver and a key question is what is now needed from governments to stimulate this agenda. The roadmap for moving forward is already clear.
Firstly, implementation of the Paris deal will be most effective through national laws, where politically feasible, which will send clear signals to the private sector. The country “commitments” put forward so far will be most credible — and durable beyond the next set of national elections — if they are backed up by legislation, as this is more difficult to roll back than regulation.
While the moves made by governments since Paris are not yet enough, that treaty has crucially put in place the domestic legal frameworks that are the crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the agreement to openly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans submitted to the UN. Under last year’s Glasgow pact, states must also update these yearly, rather than previously every half-decade, to highlight the measures being pursued to implement the goals.
What this movement toward a more robust stance on climate change shows is the scale of the transformation in attitudes already taking place among many governments and wider societies across the globe. Many countries now view tackling global warming as in the national self-interest and see, for instance, that expanding domestic sources of renewable energy not only reduces emissions but also increases energy security by reducing reliance on imported fossil fuels.
Reducing energy demand through greater efficiency reduces costs and increases competitiveness. Improving resilience to the impacts of global warming also makes economic sense. And domestic laws also give clear signals about the direction of policy, reducing uncertainty, particularly for the private sector.
The ambition must be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries and progressively ratcheted up. Now is the time for more states to build what could be a foundation of global sustainable development for billions of people across the world, starting with implementation of the Paris Agreement.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.