Countries are falling short of the 2°C target but Paris can unlock four keys to climate action

We may not be on an emissions pathway to avoid dangerous climate change just yet, but that doesn’t mean we’re on track for failure.

A paper we published earlier this week confirms our previous finding that a global deal on climate change due in Paris this December is unlikely to be consistent with limiting global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Having analysed the numbers from all the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), we find the sum of countries’ pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions fall a long way short of what’s needed.

Falling short

Here are the numbers. As of 20 July 2015, 46 countries had submitted details of their INDCs to the secretariat of the UNFCCC (10 more countries, including Australia, have submitted their INDCs since, but we haven’t had time to crunch those numbers yet). Together, these countries accounted for 58% of global annual greenhouse emissions in 2011. We calculate that their INDCs mean that global emissions in 2030 will be 56.9 to 59.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

This is well above the 36 billion tonnes that the United Nations Environment Programme has indicated would be consistent with having at least a 50 per cent chance of staying with the 2°C target.

It continues to fall short of the 2°C target, even if significant amounts of ‘negative emissions’ are possible through technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

However, our analysis does point to significant progress when comparing countries’ intentions to the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions for ‘business as usual’. The INDCs we analysed will deliver reductions of up to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2030 compared to UNEP’s ‘business as usual’ scenario.

So, whilst our analysis doesn’t account for the countries that hadn’t submitted their INDCs as of July 20, a large gap remains between countries’ current ambitions and the ambition of limiting warming to no more than 2°C. However, this isn’t a story of doom and gloom. Falling short of the 2°C failure in Paris doesn’t mean COP21 will be consigned to the list of failed climate change conferences.

Better than business as usual

The numbers may not add up to a 2°C pathway just yet. But, in submitting their INDCs, countries are showing that they understand what they have to do at a national level. The INDCs submitted by 56 countries to date represent a series of plans for the transition to a low-carbon economy. These plans are focused at the national level, and they appear practical.

What we are seeing now are the early stages of a new global deal on climate change. And, whilst many may be sceptical of yet another climate change conference, it is becoming clear that this time is different. Kyoto was top-down and perhaps many of its failings are a result of this. In contrast, the national pledges submitted ahead of Paris are the making of a bottom-up deal.

Four keys to climate action

With a little over three months to go, all countries must act to increase their ambition to act on climate change before and after Paris. For countries still due to submit their INDCs, this means outlining ambitious plans. For everyone else, it means coming to the negotiating table ready to negotiate for a strong, credible and ambitious deal. Ultimately, a deal in Paris can unlock four things that would make it easier to take the next step in the battle to curb climate change.

Firstly, the conference can raise global ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond.

Secondly, countries can agree to transparent and robust procedures by which the commitments outlined in the INDCs are implemented. This involves consideration of how countries hold themselves to account – something that is best done by writing the commitments into domestic law. Trying to create a global treaty hasn’t proved too successful in the past.

Thirdly, an agreement in Paris should include a ‘ratchet’ mechanism, whereby progress is evaluated at regular time intervals – every five years, for example – and countries can ramp up ambition accordingly. That means countries could increase their ambition to cut emissions as new and cheaper low-carbon technologies become available.

Finally, Paris presents opportunities for countries to form partnerships and to invest together in low-carbon innovation – particularly in relation to the development of cities, energy systems and land use. Whilst an agreement will see countries working towards their own national goals, hopefully written into their own domestic law, we should expect increased collaboration internationally. After all, climate change is a shared global challenge and, importantly, one in which progress is being made.