UN climate summit: Six big issues facing world leaders

Evidence suggests the worst predicted effects of global heating are happening quicker than anticipated

1 It’s happening quicker than anticipated – the Paris Agreement may not be enough

The worst predictions are coming through quicker than anyone feared. Many scientists now believe the Paris Agreement which bid to keep the temperature rise 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels will not do.

Global leaders are now asked to do more when they meet in New York . Targets agreed in 2015 must be delivered by all by 2020, as pledged. But more must be done, and decisions must be made about who pays.

2 The gap between promises and reality is huge


The terrible reality is that most countries are behind on their Paris promises. Global emissions continue to rise, fossil fuels are still the main sources of energy. Some progressive countries, notably in the EU, are decarbonising their economies with some success. However, Ireland is not amongst them due mainly to transport and agriculture emissions.

Emissions must stop rising by 2020, scientists now believe if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees. However, emissions may not peak until 2030, even if countries fully implement promises already made.

3 The dark shadow over global efforts: the US

The US walked away from pledges made in Paris. Now the Trump administration is actively hampering global efforts to decarbonise. In fact, it is encouraging more fossil fuel use in the US, while easing environmental regulations that will help fossil fuels drive the economy for years to come.

What's more, the role played by the US and EU ahead of Paris that unlocked pledges from China – now the world's biggest emitter – has been absent under Trump, who is a climate change denier.

4 The big money shift – it’s happening, but not fast enough

Trillions of euros are needed in coming decades to back green energy supplies, to pay for efforts to cut back on energy use and to pay for the costs of damage that cannot be reversed.

Huge sums are needed, but so, too, are rules and checks. The developed world created most of the problem, and must do more to fix it. Despite Trump, change is happening. If he is not re-elected in 2020, expect that leadership to be provided quickly.

5 Responsibility must fall where it should

Some countries are more to blame than others. The G20 countries – the world's wealthiest nations – produce 80 per cent of emissions. In fact, just 100 companies have produced 70 per cent of all greenhouse emissions since 1988.

Individuals can say, “it’s not my fault” if they want. But every emission matters. Every day matters. There is a moral imperative on everyone of every rank to act.

6 But it’s complicated

Everything is interlinked – the ecological crisis is connected to climate change and species decline, which is connected to a capitalist system that seeks never-ending economic growth.

Put simply, fossil fuels destroy forests, which in turn adds to global heating and wildlife destruction. Consequently, global temperatures increase, ice sheets melt and seas rise.

Solutions are not easy. There are no quick fixes. But some wins are easier than others. Wind and solar power is accelerating; sales of EVs will dramatically accelerate over the next decade. The cost of storage batteries is falling.

Most importantly, more people understand the need for change, especially the young. Even big business now realise that climate action is good for profits and shareholder returns. It was late in coming, but welcome. Ironically, it is politicians and governments who have been slowest to change.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times