United Nations: Time is running out to limit global warming

Knit glacier near Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo Credit: Len "Doc" Radin/flickr)

The Paris Agreement to limit global warming comes into force today. The world has three years to get its act together and reduce carbon emissions, the U.N. warned. If nothing changes, the deal to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is useless.

At the current rate, global emissions will reach between 54 and 56 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. That would lead to a 3 C increase in the global temperature, according to U.N. data. Global emissions need to be cut to 42 gigatons a year to limit warming to 2 C.

“If we don’t start taking additional action now, beginning with the upcoming climate meeting in Marrakesh, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy,” said Erik Solheim, head of U.N. Environment, in a news release. “The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

Global warming is already having an impact on the planet. The Paris Agreement recognized that limiting warming by the end of the century could help prevent more problems. The 2 C target is important to achieve in order to reduce the likelihood of more intense storms, longer droughts, rising sea levels and other natural disasters.

It is possible to reduce global emissions, said U.N. Environment’s chief scientist Jacqueline McGlade, during a press briefing on the report. There are promising declines in carbon dioxide emissions. And McGlade pointed to growing public pressure within countries to reduce emissions as evidence that more may be done.

Environmentalists argue that immediate action could stave off some of the worse predictions, and that complacency is harmful.

“This is a stark warning that cannot be ignored – tougher action on climate change is urgently needed to prevent the world speeding towards catastrophe,” said Asad Rehman, campaigner for Friends of the Earth, in a release. “Governments are drinking in the ‘last chance saloon’ if the lofty goals of the Paris Climate Agreement are to be met. Failure to act will not only result in more killer droughts, storms and misery – it will also hurtle us towards a future where food, water and a safe home will be a luxury for the few.”

Doing nothing could lead to southern Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean region to transform into a desert by 2100, according to a new study. Researchers in this report argue that the global warming limit needs to be 1.5 C to prevent desertification. They used computer models based on climate trends and historical vegetation data to make the projection.

The Paris accord really depends on all countries to follow through on their pledges. A few recent deals move the world closer to the 2 C target, but there is more to be done. There is room for carbon reduction in areas like agriculture and transport, according to the U.N. Climate-friendly policies in the private sector and in local government would move the needle further.

These issues are on the docket at the upcoming 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) in Marrakech, Morocco. Central to the agenda is securing the agreed $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries. It will help countries achieve their development goals without dumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Global warming hits developing countries hardest. The money will be used to support communities deal with the impacts.

Amid the discussion about moving the world forward to meet the Paris targets, is the U.S. presidential election, which takes place on Tuesday. President Barack Obama is a vocal supporter of the Paris deal and supports the global climate fund. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says she, too, will stand behind the global deals. Republican candidate Donald Trump vowed to back out of both deals.

“We’re going to cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs,” said Trump in a news release outlining his energy policies, in May.

Prince Albert of Monaco called Trump’s stance “dangerous” during a visit to the U.N. last week. Even China’s top climate change negotiator Xie Zhenhua weighed in this week.

“If they resist this trend, I don’t think they’ll win the support of their people, and their country’s economic and social progress will also be affected,” Xie said. “I believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform with global trends.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.