'Too Little, Too Late': Just 36 Countries Have Made Paris Agreement Pledges That Could Slow Climate Change

Only three dozen countries who signed up to the Paris Agreement have made pledges that go far enough to slow climate change, research has revealed.

The global action plan, struck in 2015, saw countries voluntarily outline how they plan to help keep the average global temperature increase below 2 C, relative to pre-industrial levels.

The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges report comes a day after the U.S. State Department announced it would start the formal process of withdrawing from the agreement, following an announcement by President Donald Trump in June 2017. Former President Barack Obama had previously committed to cutting emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

Researchers highlighted the U.S. was the world's second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases at 13.1 percent—following China at 26.8 percent—but found its commitment to the agreement to be insufficient. The next biggest contributor was India at 7 percent, followed by Russia at 4.6 percent. Collectively, these nations pump out more than half of greenhouse gas emissions, yet aren't doing enough to change their actions, the team warned.

Of the 184 countries signed up, three-quarters didn't go far enough in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to stop climate change speeding up in the next decade, according to the scientists. The team considered 136 pledges to be partially or totally insufficient.

Only 36 were on track to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030. A further 12 were classed as partially sufficient in cutting emissions between 40 to 20 percent by 2030.

What's more, 97 percent of the pledges have not been updated since 2015, with only four saying they would increase their targets.

Sir Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and co-author of the report, commented in a statement: "Simply, the pledges are far too little, too late."

He said: "The comprehensive examination found that with few exceptions, the pledges of rich, middle income and poor nations are insufficient to address climate change."

Co-author James J. McCarthy, professor of oceanography at Harvard University and former co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, explained to Newsweek it was known in 2015 that the sum of the pledges was insufficient to slow the rate of human-made climate change. Even so, the agreement was still significant because the U.S. and China, two major emitters, were at the table for the first time.

"Without meaningful engagement by U.S., China, and India it would be nearly impossible to dramatically slow the rate of climate change," he said.

McCarthy continued: "Several things have changed in the half-decade since the agreement was set, including studies demonstrating clearer linkages between greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere and disruptive climate; analyses have projected increased difficulty in avoiding costly climate impacts if progress in reducing emissions is not accelerated; and while youth interests in many nations are pushing for more aggressive efforts to slow climate change, President Trump is attempting to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

"Some other recently elected national leaders have suggested that they may do the same. The public needs to know the global implications of such actions."

Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University, who did not work on the report, told Newsweek: "It is impossible to stabilize the temperature so long as emissions are increasing. Actually, to stabilize temperature, global emissions need to fall. To keep temperature well below 2 C, global emissions should start falling very soon, and fall rapidly."

Barrett co-authored a 2016 study suggesting the "naming and shaming" approach used to encourage countries to stick to their voluntary pledges was unlikely to be a strong enough motivator.

He argued the tide of nationalism and self-interest in politics that has emerged in the past five years presents more obstacles for keeping average global temperature rises below 2 C.

Barrett argued Trump's plan to withdraw from the agreement "was symbolic because he could have simply altered the pledges made by the U.S. rather than withdraw from Paris. But he wanted to send a signal that the U.S. wasn't interested in multilateral approaches for addressing common problems."

"A consequence of this position is that it takes the wind out of the sails of the countries that were willing to act in the collective interest. The move has real and harmful consequences for the U.S. and for the world," he said.

Barrett explained: "The idea behind Paris and agreements like it is that if all countries only pursue their national self-interests, the outcome will be bad for everyone.

"What every country needs truly to advance its own interests is for all countries to limit emissions.

"For 75 years, the world has needed U.S. leadership to achieve great things together. That leadership has been withdrawn," said Barrett.

However, rather than complaining about the agreement, Barrett continued said it would be more productive to supplement it with others which have a better chance of causing emissions to fall worldwide. He pointed to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol designed to stop the powerful greenhouse gas hydrofluorocarbon being released.

Asked whether the onus lies with individuals to tackle climate change, for instance by keeping their carbon footprint low, McCarthy said: "We can all take action in our daily lives to strive for more efficient use of energy resources and choose when we can renewable energy.

"But we must demand that our leaders make these choices more available to us by terminating subsidies for oil and gas and by increasing the production and distribution of low emission sources of energy, plus requiring that manufacturers and builders meet more stringent emission standards," he said.

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A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'Make Earth great again' during a demonstration against climate change on March 15, 2019 in Nantes, western France. Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS/Getty/AFP