World leaders struck an agreement three years ago in Paris to avert the worst effects of climate change, accepting not only that greenhouse gases were dangerously heating the planet, but also that every single country needed to do its part to curtail emissions.
Now, emissions are rising in the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies. Other countries are backsliding on their commitments. The world as a whole is not meeting its targets under the Paris pact. As diplomats meet in Katowice, Poland, this week to bring the deal into effect, the world’s 7.6 billion people face mounting risks from more severe and more frequent floods, droughts and wildfires.
The Paris Agreement, it seems, is only as good as the willingness of national leaders to keep their word.
“We have the ways,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said this week in Katowice. “What we need is the political will to move forward.”
Champions of the accord point out that the diplomatic process is alive and well and that all of the world’s 195 countries are still in the deal, including the United States, which can exit only at the end of 2020. The science is sharper than before on the dangers of unchecked emissions, and a great many countries, including the poorest, are pushing for more ambitious targets.
The Katowice talks are facing a Saturday deadline, and Mr. Guterres has visited twice to push diplomats to bridge their still-large differences on the details of a “rule book” that will allow countries to implement the Paris Agreement.
“To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change,” Mr. Guterres said. “It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”
How did we get here?
Things started to change with the election of Donald J. Trump. Less than six months after taking office, he announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. At home, his administration has pushed to overturn pollution regulations, making it far less likely that the United States will meet its Paris pledge to cut emissions sharply by 2025.
In August, an effort in Australia to transition away from coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, resulted in the ouster of the prime minister. The man who succeeded him, Scott Morrison, endeared himself to the industry by bringing a lump of coal into Parliament.
In November, Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro, who had pledged to promote agribusiness interests in the Amazon forest, the world’s largest carbon sink.
In Poland, the host country of the latest United Nations talks, the right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, opened the negotiations by saying flatly that his country did not intend to abandon coal.
Other leaders face their own domestic difficulties. Emissions in China have grown for the past two years, signaling the difficulties of shifting the country away from its coal-dependent industrial economy. Germany is having a hard time moving away from lignite because of political opposition in the country’s coal-rich east. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, faces unrest at home over a layer cake of taxes that working-class people say burdens them unfairly.
All the while, the science has become clearer. A United States government report issued last month concluded that if significant steps were not taken to rein in global warming, it would put a huge dent in the American economy by century’s end.
And an exhaustive report issued weeks before by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, compiled by hundreds of scientists from around the world convened by the United Nations, said emissions would have to decline significantly by 2030 for the world to avoid a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires.
“The I.P.C.C. has sounded many alarms, and the world just keeps smashing the alarm and keeps on sleeping,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, on the sidelines of the talks in Katowice.
The world as a whole is not on track to meet the broad goal it set for itself in Paris: to keep the increase in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, over preindustrial levels. Under the agreement, each country put forward a voluntary pledge to curtail its own emissions.
So far, those voluntary pledges have not been sufficient. New data made public in Poland this week by the group Climate Action Tracker estimated that current climate policies put the world on pace for somewhere around 3.3 degrees Celsius.
“If we are serious about the Paris Agreement, we need to see different numbers,” Petteri Taalas, head of the World Meteorological Organization, told the delegates in Katowice this week. He noted that global emissions had risen in 2018.
The negotiations in Katowice are aimed at setting out the rules by which countries will regularly update their emissions-reductions pledges and assess one another’s progress. But even those technical discussions about the rule book have been bogged down by intense political differences.
“We are in a planetary emergency and the longer we waste time in the negotiating room not acknowledging this fact, we do so at the cost of our people and our communities,” a statement from a bloc of poor countries, led by Ethiopia, urged on Thursday.
For its part, even though the United States has said it intends to withdraw from the Paris deal, the country has still sent a delegation to the negotiations. “These global energy and environmental policies will have an impact on U.S. interests, and we want to make sure we protect those so they’re not hamstringing economic growth, innovation, entrepreneurship in the U.S.,” said Wells Griffith, Mr. Trump’s international energy and climate adviser.
The Trump administration pointedly refused to embrace the United Nations’ scientific report, siding with three other major oil- and gas-producing countries — Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — to block a resolution in Poland to “welcome” the report.
To be sure, the Paris pact, and the growing scientific clarity about global warming, has spurred countries and businesses to reorient themselves. From shipping to fast food to insurance, companies are setting their own targets to reduce carbon footprints. Solar and wind energy is expanding rapidly. Within the United States, a number of cities and states have dissented from the Trump administration’s planned exit and created their own local plans to green their economies.
Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations climate chief who led the Paris negotiations to their conclusion in December 2015, argued that the pact had set into motion a fundamental transformation of the global economy away from fossil fuels. It would be naïve, she said, to not expect pushback.
“Not to fall into Pollyanna land here, one has to recognize that of course there are huge, huge very powerful, very well endowed vested forces that are very threatened by this,” Ms. Figueres said in a podcast streamed on her website. “Let’s not get paralyzed by that,” she said.