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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite COP26 pledges, world still on track for dire warming

Without immediate climate action, ‘net zero’ targets are unlikely to succeed.

People attend a climate strike demonstration in Zurich on Nov. 6 to coincide with the U.N. COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. (Michael Buholzer/AP)

GLASGOW, Scotland — After nine days of grand pronouncements, pledges and plans, scientists delivered a rude awakening to a COP26 summit that has been called “the last, best hope” for climate action: Earth is on track to warm about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit), eclipsing the world’s shared climate goal by a full degree.

In a preliminary analysis released Tuesday, United Nations researchers found a massive gap between countries’ long-term promises to zero out carbon emissions and the official, short-term plans known as “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs.

What countries are planning to do between now and 2030 makes many net zero pledges impossible, the researchers say. And despite a flurry of new commitments to zero out emissions, the projected level of warming by the end of the century is only about 0.1 degrees lower than before COP26 started.

Earth has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. If humanity continues on its current trajectory, global sea levels will rise at least 2 feet, according to research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Almost half of the world will face regular, life-threatening heat waves. Humanity risks exceeding climate tipping points, triggering ice-sheet loss, permafrost thaw and ecosystem collapse from which there is no return.

Unless pledges are boosted in the immediate future, humanity will lose its chance to limit warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — a target that scientists and vulnerable communities increasingly say the world cannot afford to miss.

The findings come during the highly technical second week of the Glasgow summit, when diplomats huddle in windowless meeting rooms, attempting to hammer out the rules for assessing and enforcing the world’s climate goals.

But the latest projections underscore a growing frustration with the U.N. meeting: The lofty rhetoric of world leaders last week has not been followed up with concrete action.

“Net zero is a door opener to false solutions,” said Tom B.K. Goldtooth, a Diné and Dakota activist and director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It just doesn’t add up.”

Absent real policy change and a substantial shift away from burning fossil fuels, the distant goal of hitting net zero looks to many like kicking the can down the road.

“We shouldn’t be blinded by long-term promises,” said Joeri Rogelj, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London and a lead author of the updated Emissions Gap report.

“If you want to achieve net zero goals in the long term, your near-term pledges have to put you on track to deliver them,” he added. “Otherwise, there is low confidence they will ever be achieved.”

The idea of hitting “net zero” — a point at which humanity’s emissions are completely canceled out by carbon sinks — gained fire in the run-up to this year’s conference. A week before the start of COP26, some four dozen members, including the United States and European Union, had committed to reaching net zero sometime around the middle of the century.

Recent days brought a flurry of new announcements: China aims to zero out emissions by 2060. India by 2070.

If nations can be taken at their word, this looks like progress, if not perfection. Meeting net zero goals would lead to temperature rise of about 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the emissions gap update. That would bring the world much closer to the Paris agreement goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

But researchers say it’s more realistic to look at short-term pledges, which require immediate action and for which political leaders can more easily be held accountable. Here, new plans from China, Australia and Brazil, among other major emitters, don’t do much to alter the world’s trajectory.

And many pledges from developing nations are conditional upon support from wealthier countries. Considering only the “unconditional” plans submitted to the U.N., projected warming remains stubbornly at 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

“When we look at what has come in, the additional pledges, frankly it’s the elephant giving birth to a mouse,” said U.N. Environment Program executive director Inger Andersen. “We are not doing enough. We are not where we need to be. And we need to step up with much more action, much more urgency and much more ambition.”

The result highlights a weakness in net zero commitments, experts say. It is harder to hold politicians accountable for meeting targets that will come long after they are out of office.

“The long-term vision is step one,” said Niklas Höhne, a climate policy researcher at the NewClimate Institute and contributor to an emissions analysis published by the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker. “That’s good progress.”

“But step one is easy,” he continued. “We need to take five more steps of that size.”

The emissions gap update is the work of 78 scientists and policy experts and draws on research from several nonprofit and academic groups, including Climate Action Tracker. It takes a relatively conservative approach to assessing global warming, focusing on what the world has at least 66 percent chance of achieving.

By comparison, a similar analysis published last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) looked at the temperature goals humanity has a 50 percent shot to meet. Seen through that lens, the Paris-based group said the world could limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) if all net zero pledges are fulfilled.

A range of warming projections

Three groups released updated projections

of how much the world will warm by 2100

compared with the preindustrial era,

according to these scenarios:

Long-term net zero pledges met as planned

Short-term pledges submitted to the U.N. met

Current or planned policies continue

2.1°C

2.5°C

2.8°C

U.N. Environment Program

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.4

2.7

Climate Action Tracker

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.6

International Energy Agency

Updated Nov. 4

1.5

3.0

Note: The IEA does not project a scenario that assumes full compliance with pledges to the U.N.

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

A range of warming projections

Three groups released updated projections of how much

the world will warm by 2100 compared with the

preindustrial era, according to these scenarios:

Long-term net zero pledges met as planned

Short-term pledges submitted to the U.N. met

Current or planned policies continue

2.1°C

2.5°C

2.8°C

U.N. Environment Program

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.4

2.7

Climate Action Tracker

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.6

International Energy Agency

Updated Nov. 4

1.5

3.0

Note: The IEA does not project a scenario that assumes full

compliance with pledges to the U.N.

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

A range of warming projections

Three groups released updated projections of how much the world will warm by 2100

compared with the preindustrial era, according to these scenarios:

Countries continue

with current or

planned policies

Countries with long-term

net zero pledges fulfill

them as planned

Countries fulfill their

short-term pledges

to the United Nations

2.1°C

2.5°C

2.8°C

U.N. Environment Program

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.4

2.7

Climate Action Tracker

Updated Nov. 9

1.8

2.6

International Energy Agency

Updated Nov. 4

1.5

2.0

2.5

3.0

Note: The IEA does not project a scenario that assumes full compliance with pledges to the U.N.

HARRY STEVENS/THE WASHINGTON POST

“This is a landmark moment,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol wrote in a commentary. “It is the first time that governments have come forward with targets of sufficient ambition to hold global warming to below 2 degrees C.”

Yet even the analysts behind the report noted “it’s too early to celebrate.” Regardless of which pledges are considered, all estimates are dependent on countries actually following through. On this, humanity does not have a good track record. Half of the world’s major economies have not even met their previous Paris agreement goals — and greenhouse gas emissions globally are still rising.

That’s why this week’s technical negotiations are so important, Rogelj said.

“It is essential to know what’s going on and hold countries accountable,” Rogelj said. “Because a lot of ambition without those strong data — even though ambition is important — it’s just woolly words, without anything solid.”

Among the issues negotiators are now attempting to sort out are requirements for countries to report their estimated emissions. A Washington Post investigation published this week found that many countries are providing unreliable data to the U.N., leading to a giant gap between reported emissions and what actually goes into the atmosphere.

Wealthy nations want to see more transparency from developing nations, asking them to report their emissions and update their climate goals more frequently than was originally set out in the Paris agreement. The goal is to make sure countries are doing what they said they would do — as well as to create more pressure to do even more.

For countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, “this is not something they agreed to in Paris — political pressure every year,” said a European negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks. “If you pressure too much, it can backfire.”

Since the entire system under discussion in Glasgow is voluntary, the negotiator warned that creating rules that will actually be used requires a delicate balance.

Right now, negotiators are “creating infrastructure for international cooperation,” the diplomat said. “But the infrastructure is only as good as the political will to use it.”

Many hard-hit countries and activists have also called for an enhanced system for updating national pledges. The rules of the Paris agreement only require countries to boost their ambition on a five-year cycle.

But if the world doesn’t set new carbon cutting plans until 2025, Höhne said, the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal will be permanently out of reach.

In that scenario, natural disasters would reach unheard-of intensity. Entire communities would be swallowed up by rising seas. Crop yields would decline, water would become scarce, and displacement would become facts of life for millions of people.

“This has become a matter of life and death for the great majority of Haitians,” Haitian Environment Minister James Cadet told fellow ministers on Tuesday. “We must act here and now. If we wait it will be too late.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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