It's Not Just America: Climate Policies Are Stumbling Worldwide

According to the UN, most major polluters are not on track to meet their Paris goals. But critics say that accounting may be too pessimistic.

A protester wearing a yellow vest burns a barricade in front of a stone arch.
A protester burns a barricade during "yellow vest" riots this month against a gas-tax hike in France. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters)

Humanity is losing ground in its battle against climate change.

On Tuesday, a new UN report warned that the world is farther than it was last year from meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. More than half of the planet’s richest countries—including Canada, Australia, South Korea, the United States, and the nations of the European Union—are not cutting their carbon pollution as fast as they promised under that treaty, it says.

If humanity does not change course, then Earth could warm by roughly 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, the report suggests. This is enough warming to set off some of the most feared consequences of climate change, including deadly heat waves, ravaging wildfires, widespread plant and animal extinctions, and potentially many feet of runaway sea-level rise.

“The gap between where we are and where we need to be is much bigger than it was last year,” says Philip Drost, an officer at UN Environment who helped write the report. “We have new evidence that countries are not doing enough.”

Joseph Curtin, a senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs who was not involved with the UN report, affirmed its overall message. “It’s no surprise whatsoever that the picture has worsened since last year,” he told me in an email. Meeting the Paris goals “requires dramatic global reductions in emissions, but as the report notes, emissions have not declined.”

But he took issue with some of its country-specific conclusions, especially for the EU. The report uses a stringent method of forecasting whether a country is on track to meet its goals, extrapolating only the policies that are in place today. He predicted that the EU would make its Paris targets by its 2030 deadline, adding that the group must reconcile policies across 28 member states.

“The EU is in fact rushing ahead to meet its pledge,” he said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen.”

The UN’s dire diagnosis comes as the Paris Agreement faces an ambiguous future. Completed in 2015, the treaty allowed for each country to set its own climate goal. The UN expects each country to increase the ambition of its climate goal over time. But President Donald Trump, who intends to withdraw the United States from the agreement, has damaged this “ratchet mechanism,” Curtin said.

In fact, a global rightward shift on climate change seems to be occurring. In the United States, Trump has undone several major programs meant to limit carbon pollution. In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull failed to pass an energy-reform bill that included modest climate goals, and was promptly ousted by his own party for proposing it. In Brazil, the far-right president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has promised to strip the Amazon rainforest of its legal protections, possibly clearing the way for logging of such scale as to virtually ensure dangerous climate change.

Even in France, the birthplace of the climate treaty, rioters have taken to the streets this week to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s new climate-friendly tax on gasoline and diesel.

France, Brazil, Australia, and the United States are all members of the G20, an organization of the world’s 20 largest economies or central banks. Drost, the UN officer who helped lead the new report, said the G20 countries are primarily responsible for the growing failure to meet Paris. Taken together, they emit about 80 percent of worldwide carbon pollution every year.

But Drost did not solely blame laggards in the G20, such as Australia or the United States, for failing Paris. A few members of the group—notably India, Russia, and Turkey—will massively overshoot their Paris targets, he said. This suggests that they originally picked goals that were too easy to meet.

The UN report identifies two reasons for the growing gap between the Paris goals and reality. First, worldwide carbon pollution rose in 2017, thanks to growing economies in Asia, booming SUV sales worldwide, and a small increase in coal use in India. This was the first time that global carbon emissions had risen in three years. Second, a blockbuster report released last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the world will not be able to directly remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as once thought.

“A lot of people were patting themselves on the back for the flatlining in emissions from 2014 to 2016,” says Kelly Levin, an author of the UN report and a policy analyst at the World Resources Institute. “But even if [countries’ Paris goals] are fully implemented, emissions aren’t scheduled to peak until after 2030.”

Under that set of goals, the world would warm above pre-industrial levels by at least 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100—and likely more if it overshoots the 2030 targets. That’s not nearly enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, according to that same recent IPCC report. To safely hold global temperature rise to 2.7 degrees, the IPCC says that the world must dramatically cut emissions before 2030.

Earth has already warmed 1.8 degrees since the beginning of the 20th century.

But countries “have a lot of time to course-correct,” Levin told me. Most of them have set a self-imposed deadline of 2030 for their Paris goals, although a few, including the United States, chose 2025.

Curtin said that he fully expected the EU to make its goals under the Paris treaty—it just needed more time. “The EU is on track to meet its 2020 pledge (it will significantly over-comply), and then 2030 will come into greater focus,” he told me. He added that he doesn’t love the UN’s pessimistic public pose. “I think it’s very dangerous to take a ‘plague on all their houses approach,’” he said. Instead, he favored promoting policies such as those in Sweden, the U.K., and Germany as examples the rest of the world should follow.

And not everything looks bleak in global climate policy. Even as the United Kingdom plans to leave the EU, it has publicly promised to uphold the EU’s climate goals under Paris. The UN report also hails states, cities, and companies that have promised to cut their carbon emissions. The Science Based Targets initiative, which has set pollution-cutting goals for companies such as McDonald’s, General Mills, and CVS Health, deserved high praise, Drost said.

“What this report makes strikingly clear is that everyone has to do everything,” he told me. “Citizens have to be engaged, have to pay attention, have to use their purchasing power, have to demand change
from businesses. Governments have to scale up their [Paris pledges]. Everyone needs to act, and everyone can act.”