U.N. Climate Summit Sets Stage For New National Emissions Promises

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on September 23, 2019 7:27 am

Leaders from nearly 200 countries are attending a special United Nations Summit on climate change today as they face increasing pressure from citizens around the world to cut global greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.

Currently, global emissions are on track to cause potentially catastrophic climate change in the coming decades.

The summit acts as a kickoff to international climate negotiations in 2020, which is the next deadline for countries to make dramatic emissions reduction promises under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

"I am appealing for leadership from politicians, from businesses and scientists and from the public everywhere," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said when he announced the summit. "We face a direct existential threat. Climate change is moving faster than we are."

Indeed, average temperatures on Earth continue to rise, driving sea level rise, more frequent and severe storms, longer heat waves and cold snaps, and more extreme rainstorms and droughts. Economic costs associated with such disasters are mounting.

Although nearly every nation on the planet, including the United States, promised to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions when they signed the Paris Agreement, climate scientists warn that the cumulative pledges are nowhere near sufficient.

Humans must limit global warming to Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

"We're way off," Hsu says. "What's really worrisome is that we need global emissions to peak by next year, by 2020. That's really soon."

China and the U.S. are the top greenhouse gas emitters in the world, and their cooperation was the crucial foundation for the Paris Agreement. Delegations from both countries will attend today's U.N. summit, but their positions have diverged.

In the U.S., President Trump has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and his administration has moved to allow greater emissions from power plants, vehicles, and oil and gas operations. Despite local climate pledges by dozens of states and hundreds of cities, "the United States, right now, is not on track to meet its climate change commitments under the Paris Agreement," says Kelly Levin, a climate analyst at the World Resources Institute think tank.

China, on the other hand, is on track to meet its commitments, which hinged on reaching peak emissions no later than 2030.

"There have been some indications that they could peak their emissions by 2022," Hsu says. "That's not so far away. That's about eight years ahead of schedule." And China is now a world leader in renewable energy, including solar, wind and hydropower.

It's a glimmer of hope in a sea of otherwise dire news. Even as the government invests in clean technology, China is building new coal-fired power plants outside its borders as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. And, even if the country's emissions start declining in the coming years, it will likely be too slow to keep global temperatures in check.

Nonetheless, China is expected to be one of the countries to announce their intention to set more drastic emissions targets at today's summit. India is also expected to announce a plan to update its emissions promises. And some world leaders, including the delegation from France, are expected to announce that they intend to make drastic emissions cuts in the coming decade.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've been hearing this morning, world leaders are meeting in New York today. They are holding a special United Nations climate change summit. 2020 is the deadline for countries to make bigger, bolder promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But many of the world's biggest economies are struggling to keep up with their previous promises. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has this carbon report card.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Let's start with a couple basic climate science facts that world leaders are staring down today. Fact No. 1 - the average temperature on our planet has already increased about 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. Kelly Levin studies global emissions at the World Resources Institute think tank.

KELLY LEVIN: You've seen the Arctic hitting record highs and a scorching summer in Europe and the United States, leaving hundreds dead, and July was the warmest month on record ever, globally. And this is just with 1 degree Celsius of warming.

HERSHER: Storms are getting more frequent and severe, sea levels are rising, and heat waves and droughts are getting longer, which brings us to fact No. 2 - if the Earth gets 1 1/2 degrees Celsius hotter, all of those things get significantly worse. Many animals will go extinct. Many people will be forced to move, which is why leaders from nearly 200 nations are meeting in New York because - fact No. 3 - right now the world is on track for about 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century. So yeah, it's not good. Angel Hsu is a researcher at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. I spoke to her via Skype.

ANGEL HSU: Unfortunately, national governments are really falling behind when it comes to delivering the ambition and the emissions cuts that we really need to avoid dangerous climate change.

HERSHER: National governments including the U.S., the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world behind China. The U.S. has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2025. The good news - overall carbon emissions have gone down in the last decade, mostly because companies stopped burning so much coal. But under the Trump administration, that trend has slowed.

HSU: What ended up happening in 2018 was a spike in emissions from the United States, and that also occurred in China as well. So that's what's really worrisome.

HERSHER: But Hsu says there's a kind of silver lining. The Chinese government has been investing a lot in renewable energy, like solar and hydropower and electric public transit, and appears to be planning more. And because it's not a democracy, the leaders who make climate promises can't be voted out of office.

HSU: And I think what's really encouraging about China is, when the leadership is committed to something, they can really follow through.

HERSHER: India has also signaled it might be getting ready to promise big emissions cuts, and it's on track to achieve its current emissions promises. Levin says many countries recognize there's a lot to gain from burning less coal, less gas, cutting down fewer trees.

LEVIN: Clean water and clean air and more efficient food production - there are such tremendous benefits that can be borne by climate action.

HERSHER: Which brings us back to the United States. The federal government is currently trying to roll back policies that would control greenhouse gas emissions - things like limits on emissions from power plants and oil fields and cars. Meanwhile, hundreds of state and local governments are doing the opposite - passing local regulations, making local emissions promises - all of which puts the U.S. delegation at today's meeting in an awkward position and raises the question, if the U.S. is no longer leading international climate action, who will?

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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