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Nations’ climate pledges will still leave emissions rising for years, U.N. says

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, second from left, delivers remarks next to Christiana Figueres, left, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change , during the United Nations’ climate conference on Oct. 20, in Bonn, Germany. (Oliver Berg/European Pressphoto Agency)

This story has been updated.

In a key moment on the road to the much anticipated Paris climate meeting this December — and one underscoring just how difficult solving the climate problem will be — the United Nations has released a “synthesis” report assessing all of the emissions cutting pledges made by countries in advance of the meeting. And the upshot is both that countries have raised their climate ambitions greatly, but also that even by 2025 or 2030, global emissions are expected to still be rising despite their best efforts.

One hundred forty-six countries made pledges by Oct. 1 of this year, accounting for 86 percent of all of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. These pledges, or “INDCs” (intended nationally determined contributions), have been a major factor in raising hopes that Paris will succeed where Copenhagen failed in 2009.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, just 27 countries announced pledges that contained “concrete mitigation targets” for cutting greenhouse gases, according to Taryn Fransen of the World Resources Institute. But this time around, more than 100 countries have made pledges, including many developing nations, she said.

It’s “a real evolution in terms of how countries are appreciating the need to firmly reduce emissions, and seeing it as something that could be compatible with development,” Fransen said in a conference call with the media on Thursday.

However, the United Nations’ assessment is sobering. If all of the INDCs are implemented, then global emissions will stand at roughly 55 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually by 2025, and 57 gigatons by 2030, the report states. That’s an increase from current levels of about 48 gigatons in 2010.

This finding also has major implications for the so-called carbon budget. As of 2011, the world only had about 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide left to emit in order to ensure a two-thirds or better chance of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Gigatons of carbon dioxide are not the same as gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents (the latter includes methane and other greenhouse gases). But by 2030 in this scenario, the new report finds that about 750 of those remaining gigatons of carbon dioxide will have been emitted — in other words,75 percent of the carbon dioxide budget will have been spent.

What does it all add up to? The pledges have the potential to hold warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius, perhaps, but not 2 degrees without further steps, the United Nations said. “Much greater emission reductions effort than those associated with the INDCs will be required in the period after 2025 and 2030 to hold the temperature rise below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels,” the new report concludes.

It is important to acknowledge that this whole analysis rests on a large number of assumptions, not the least of which is that 2 degrees is actually a “safe” target — which many scientists doubt. Furthermore, there are other planetary sources of carbon, such as northern permafrost soils, that scientists think could add additional carbon to the atmosphere as warming continues.

Still, there’s some good news here. The new U.N. report on the INDCs states that while emissions will still rise, their rate of growth will be slower thanks to the current pledges. “The relative rate of growth in emissions in the 2010–2030 period is expected to be 10-57 per cent lower than that over the period 1990–2010, reflecting the impact of the INDCs,” the document states. It also says emissions will be lower on a per capita basis, despite a growing global population.

An image from the report helps make the point:

Countries have submitted the INDC documents under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 1992 global treaty that pledged countries of the world to take steps to avoid “dangerous” climate change. The Paris meeting this winter will represent the 21st conference of parties to the treaty, and is hoped will produce an agreement to, at long last, do just that.

In a White House reaction to the report, Paul Bodnar, the National Security Council’s senior director for energy and climate change, hailed the progress represented by the INDCs, noting that “the targets establish a new, lower global emissions trajectory that will enable a plateau of emissions soon after 2030. In addition, they set the foundation for keeping warming below 2 degrees and avoiding the most dangerous possible outcomes from climate change.”

However, the new synthesis report, in documenting that the current pledges aren’t enough, raises the question of how Paris will increase ambitions still further, says Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute.

“Despite the unprecedented level of effort, this report finds that current commitments are not yet sufficient to meet what the world needs,” Morgan said in a statement. “Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible.”

“The foundation has been poured, but to build from this the Paris agreement must deliver transparency and accountability against these pledges, and ensure that countries accelerate their ambition over time,” added the Nature Conservancy’s director of international government relations Andrew Deutz in reaction to the new report.

Clarification: This article was updated to draw a clear distinction between the thousand gigatons of CO2 left in the carbon dioxide budget, and carbon dioxide equivalents, which includes not only carbon dioxide but also other greenhouse gases.