Taoiseach to join 70 world leaders in new global warming pledge

Five years after Paris, UN gathering an acid test of where world now stands on climate action

The Artic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.1 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average according to figures by Nasa. Video: Trent L. Schindler/NASA’s Scientific Visualisation Studio

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

Five years after the world agreed to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees”, 70 world leaders, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, will on Saturday pledge to strive to go lower.

The gathering – taking place virtually because of the Covid-19 crisis – is an acid test of where the world now stands on climate action, following the lofty declarations made in Paris in 2015.

Back then, in Paris, they agreed to ramp up their efforts to fight climate change every five years to meet temperature goals. The target for the end of the century is set at 1.5 degrees, not just well below 2 degrees.

The years since, however, have not been good, dominated by a torrid period of climate science denialism with populist leaders emboldened by US president Donald Trump undermining its goals.

‘Emissions gap’

But with Trump no longer a threat and president-elect Joe Biden committed to rejoining the accord, there is optimism that progress can now be made, but only if promises made are kept.

Currently, those pledges – known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs – are “woefully inadequate”, as confirmed by this week’s UN Environment Programme (UNEP) “emissions gap” report.

The maths show what the political pledges do not. Despite all the talks, emissions have continued to rise since Paris and the impact of those emissions on the climate has intensified.

Many governments, including Ireland, were already behind on climate planning when the Covid crisis intervened; diverting vast resources into healthcare, social welfare and supporting business.

The summit is an undisguised attempt to shame major states into action. This month UN chief António Guterres called for a “quantum leap” to get to net-zero emissions, declaring “the planet is broken”.

It is hard to challenge that view. If the UNEP report is right, the Earth will be 3.2 degrees warmer by the end of the century, which will have a catastrophic impact.

And Covid-19 does not save the world from itself. Despite bringing much of the world to a halt, the direct climate impact of coronavirus lockdown has lowered 2050 temperature projections by a “negligible” 0.01 degrees.

Snow

The Arctic’s rapid transformation into a less frozen, hotter and biologically altered place has been exacerbated by a year of wildfires, soaring temperatures and loss of ice, according to US scientists.

Snow may not settle in most of the United Kingdom by the end of the century, a UK Met Office study suggests – so snowy Irish winters could become a thing of the past too.

Yet “a green economic recovery” from the pandemic could potentially reducing emissions by 25 per cent over the next decade and put the world on track to meet the 2- degree goal, UNEP says.

Every national leader today gets two minutes to speak. The best slots go to those with something meaningful to say. Some leaders may even be refused speaking time if their promises are deemed too weak.

Ireland will be highlighting its averaged 7 per cent cut per year up to 2030; a Climate Bill with robust governance and demanding “carbon budgets”; and a 2050 net-zero emissions target.

Despite the failures of many of its member states, the EU, as a whole, comes to the United Nations table today buoyed up after striking a deal on a 55 per cent cut by 2030.

Combined with China, Japan and South Korea’s recent pledges to hit net-zero emissions, this will probably be the most upbeat climate gathering since the Paris pact was forged.

A total of 127 countries are considering or have adopted net-zero emissions targets. India, Saudi Arabia and Australia are under most pressure to come on board more strongly.

Guterres will demand action on three fronts. Firstly, he wants the creation of a global net-zero coalition by 2050. Secondly, global finance must be pulled away completely from financing all fossil fuel industries.

Thirdly, the poorest countries – already the ones who are most affected by the direct impacts of climate change on crops, flooding, livestock and people – must get the help they need to cope.

US intent

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, representing the C40 coalition of mayors, is scheduled to act as Biden’s proxy. His 90-second address will be intensely analysed for signals of US intent.

Five years ago in Paris, international climate policy expert Dr Diarmuid Torney of Dublin City University was a lot more optimistic. “A lot of momentum dissipated after Paris, particularly with Trump’s election,” he says.

Biden’s win, though, has transformed the mood. Ten years ago, Dr Torney would have been happy to see the British government in charge of next year’s critical COP26 negotiations.

Now he has reservations about the ability of Boris Johnson to provide the leadership required. “Number 10 is a chaotic place these days and the outcome of Brexit will play into that.” His first test on the global stage comes this weekend.

The big question still remains. Is the Paris deal enough to avoid climate catastrophe? A rise limited to 2 degrees brings irreversible damage, but a drive to 1.5 degrees may be beyond reach.