In a new analysis released as the Paris climate change summit nears, the International Energy Agency says countries’ collective pledges to reduce emissions would lead to a dramatic disconnect between using energy and emitting greenhouse gases.
Specifically, the pledges by over 150 nations — responsible for about 90 percent of the globe’s emissions — would reduce the rate of emissions growth between now and 2030 to about one third of what it has been from 2000 to the present, says the agency.
In a sense, this is great news — hence the positive take by IEA chief Fatih Birol:
— Fatih Birol (@IEABirol) October 21, 2015
But if you look more closely, the result is more concerning. “The annual growth in global energy-related emissions slows to a relative crawl by 2030 (around 0.5% per year),” the report notes, but it is still growth, not yet a cessation or a decline.
Indeed, energy related emissions keep rising in the IEA’s projections, and are equivalent to 42 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually in 2030 (they were 32.3 last year). And thus the IEA calculates that this level of emissions is “consistent” with a global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.
That is far beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels that some contend would represent a climate safe zone. And even this idea — a key premise of international climate negotiations — is increasingly in question.
For instance, a recent study in Nature found that “prolonged ocean warming of 0.5 C above present, together with atmospheric warming of 2 C, ultimately leads to the loss of 80% to 85% of all floating ice in Antarctica.” And once the floating ice shelves are reduced and lose their critical buttressing function, continental ice will flow much more rapidly into the sea, leading to major sea level rise. This will play out over centuries, but the commitment to it happening will occur in this one, the research found.
Another recent analysis, meanwhile, found that every 1 degree Celsius of temperature rise translates into an eventual 2.3 meter rise of the oceans.
In fairness, it is not like Paris is the last moment ever when the world can decide to cut its emissions. One key implication of the IEA’s analysis is that climate ambition will have to be “raised progressively” following Paris to reduce emissions further.
The countries’ commitments “must therefore be viewed as an important base upon which to build ambition,” says IEA.
But the problem is that every year’s emissions add more warming commitment, and the atmosphere is a lot more predictable in this sense than politics or economies. Thus, as Paris nears, the global race is now officially on — to cut, and cut, and cut emissions, and just maybe catch up with the speed of warming.