May 31, 2019

Paris + 2: Climate jolted faster than projected

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Saturday marks two years since President Trump announced he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement — and the chasm between scientific findings and political action is only growing.

The big picture: Climate science is now more clear than ever about the damage that climate change is causing. But many countries aren’t on track to meet their Paris emissions targets — and now there’s no U.S. leadership to push them to try harder.

The details: Scientists tell Axios they now have:

  • More confidence in the observed amounts of global warming, showing the planet has been heating up faster than previously thought, from the poles to the depths of the seas.
  • Clear evidence that virtually all of the observed warming since 1950 is due to human activities.
  • Robust data showing that limiting global warming to the Paris targets of 1.5°C or 2°C would have significant, tangible benefits by reducing damage.

Between the lines: A study published last week projected that unchecked growth in greenhouse gas emissions could cause global sea levels to rise by an average of 3.6 feet by 2100.

  • This compares to just 2.3 feet if warming is limited to 2°C above preindustrial levels, coauthor Robert Kopp tells Axios.
  • The lower the amount of warming, the less likely it is that the planet will trigger climate change tipping points like the loss of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets.
“Over the past two years we’ve learned that key impacts of climate change, like the melting of ice, the rise in sea level, and the increase in devastating weather extremes, are playing out faster than our models projected just a few years ago.“
— Michael Mann, Penn State University
  • The emissions reductions required to meet the 1.5°C goal are drastic and would be costly. They include getting to net zero emissions by 2050, and negative emissions by 2100.
  • There are few signs that governments are willing to undertake such radical actions.

Where it stands: While virtually all countries except the U.S. remain committed to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, many aren’t on track to meet their targets — which are mostly too weak anyway, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a research group following the Paris deal pledges.

  • China and India are poised to meet their targets with currently implemented policies, the group says, “which may suggest they could be doing even more,” said Elliot Diringer, of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
  • Canada, Australia and the U.S. aren't on track to meet their goals.

By the numbers: Since Trump promised to withdraw from the deal:

The intrigue: Experts say Trump’s vow to withdraw from the deal didn't cause this progress, or lack thereof. But…

  • “What’s harder to assess is the degree to which it’s undermining political will in countries to push forward the policies needed to meet their targets,” Diringer said. “I’d say it’s a fair bet that over time continued U.S. inaction will have a corrosive effect on political will globally.”

What to watch: To what degree countries ratchet up their policy ambitions and Paris targets at a high-profile United Nations summit on September 23. A top U.N. official said earlier this week 80 countries were prepared to do so, but he didn’t name names.

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