Good News, Bad News from 2018 UN Climate Meeting

December 17, 2018, 3:50 PM EST

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Above: COP24 president Michal Kurtyka jumps at the end of the final session of the COP24 summit on climate change in Katowice, Poland, on Saturday, December 15, 2018. Image credit: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images.

The strengths and weaknesses of the global Paris Agreement on fighting climate change were on full display in the 24th annual Conference of Parties meeting (COP24), which ended Saturday in Katowice, Poland. On the plus side, the multi-year process agreed to in 2015 by the world’s nations is coming together on schedule. On the down side, it’s ever more clear that the voluntary national pledges at the heart of the Paris Agreement are far short of what’s needed for a solid chance of avoiding disastrous climate consequences.

Thousands of diplomats, scientists, and activists from around the globe have met for COP meetings each year since 1995 under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the landmark treaty signed by the late George H.W. Bush and other world leaders.

Delegates attend the second part of the high-level segment at the COP24 meeting
Figure 1. Delegates attend the second part of the high-level segment at the COP24 meeting on Wednesday, December 12, 2018. Image credit: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

It took years of excruciating work to forge an agreement on cutting emissions that brought in all of the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases—particularly the United States and China, which together have produced more than 40% of all global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in recent years. Negotiators managed to bring in virtually everyone with the Paris Agreement, but at a high price: its national commitments to reducing greenhouse gases are entirely voluntary, to be enforced by “name and shame” peer pressure rather than by international law.

Each country is being encouraged to ratchet up its Paris Agreement pledges every five years: in 2020, 2025, and beyond. Three years after each round of pledge revisions, starting in 2023, there will be a “global stocktake” session, where progress is juxtaposed against the latest science and the goal of achieving equity. This year’s meeting was a pre-stocktake of sorts, intended to hammer out the rules of how the pledges (or nationally determined contributions) will be verified and updated.

The nuts-and-bolts work needed to go forward was accomplished successfully in Katowice, according to UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa: “The multilateral system has delivered a solid result. This is a roadmap for the international community to decisively address climate change”.

Detours on the road to climate action

U.S. President Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement—the only world leader to formally make such a move. Any such withdrawal can’t take effect until late 2020. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, said during his campaign that he would keep Brazil in the Paris Agreement, but the nation has withdrawn its plans to host the COP25 meeting in 2019.

For the time being, the United States is still a party to the agreement, which led to an awkward duality in Katowice at COP24. Long-term U.S. staffers worked with other nations on details of implementing the Paris plan, helping engineer an agreement with China on reporting standards that will apply to all countries. Meanwhile, the only U.S. public event in Katowice featured political appointee Wells Griffith extolling the virtues of coal and being subjected to a stinging youth-led protest on December 10. The next day, Griffith speed-walked away from reporter Amy Goodman (Democracy Now!) for an estimated quarter mile, in one of the most striking avoid-the-journalist moments I’ve seen.

Four major oil producers—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the U.S.—refused to join other nations in officially welcoming this year’s special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the consequences of 1.5°C of global warming (see below). According to NRDC’s Jeff Turrentine, “In voting that the report’s dire conclusions should be ‘noted’ but not ‘welcomed', Trump administration representatives in Katowice weren’t just quibbling over semantics. They were stating, for the record, that the official position of the U.S. government regarding the IPCC report is: What’s the big deal?”

In the end, the report was received with "appreciation and gratitude" rather than formally welcomed, reported the New York Times' Brad Plumer.

The ascent of the 1.5°C goal

The stated goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep the global temperature rise over preindustrial levels well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5°C. The 2°C target had been widely researched for decades, whereas some parties, especially small island states at particular risk of sea level rise, had begun pushing more recently for a 1.5°C target. With less research as of 2015 supporting the newer, more stringent goal, negotiators opted for mentioning both goals while calling for a full study on the 1.5°C target. What emerged as a result was the bombshell IPCC report in late 2018 on the myriad impacts if global warming should exceed 1.5°C.

Global temperature pathways for 1.5°C goal
Figure 2. Human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017. At the present rate, global temperatures would reach 1.5°C around 2040. Stylized 1.5°C pathway shown here involves emission reductions beginning immediately, and CO2 emissions reaching zero by 2055. Image credit: Figure 1, FAQ 1.2, from the Frequently Answered Questions document, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, courtesy IPCC.

To keep the planet from overshooting the 1.5°C target even briefly, the report found that net global greenhouse emissions have to be slashed in short order. The cuts would need to be on the order of almost 50% by 2030 and close to 100% by 2050. There is some spread around those estimates, but all of the model scenarios tell us that emission cuts in the next decade will have to go far beyond anything achieved to date.

Global carbon dioxide emissions held roughly steady from 2014 to 2016, but rose by around 1.6% in 2017 and will have risen another 1.8% to 3.7% by the end of this year, according to the Global Carbon Budget.

Emissions cuts needed to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C
Figure 3. In order to keep the temperature curve in Figure 2 from going above 1.5°C of warming, emissions would need to follow reduction paths similar to those shown above in the teal envelope. Net emissions would need to reach zero somewhere between the 2030s and 2070s, with the best estimate just after 2050. Image credit: Figure SPM3A from the Summary for Policymakers, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, courtesy IPCC.

The IPCC report’s midpoint estimate of a 45% cut needed by 2030 has gained huge amounts of attention as a motivating, easy-to-grasp deadline.

Polish students protesting at COP24, Katowice, 12/2018
Figure 4. Polish students hold placards and a banner during a protest at the UN COP24 meeting on Saturday, December 15, 2018. The protest was in solidarity with 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was protesting outside Sweden's parliament, refusing to attend school and calling on politicians to take climate issues seriously. Image credit: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Although the Paris process doesn’t call for the first round of updated pledges till 2020, activists in Katowice pushed for nations to step up their pledges right away in light of the 1.5°C report. Many were disappointed this didn't happen. “Just two months after [IPCC] warned we have 12 years left to save the world, COP24 ended with no clear promise of enhanced climate action,” said Greenpeace in a press release on Saturday.

One thing is certain: every year in which emissions fail to drop significantly will only make it that much tougher to make the needed cuts later on. Multiple studies have shown that the initial Paris pledges by themselves would still allow for an estimated 2.7°C - 3.7°C of warming. This heightens the importance of a major ramp-up in national pledges by the scheduled 2020 update, if not sooner—which in turn implies the need for a huge and rapid shift toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. As we discussed in a post on December 6, there are powerful incentives to use up our known reserves of fossil fuels, which would push us way beyond 1.5°C.

FAQ 2.1 in the IPCC’s 1.5°C report includes a dire warning: “If current pledges for 2030 are achieved but no more, researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C."

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”

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