Three years later, where do we stand with the Paris Climate Accords?

A protester shows a placard during a climate demonstration in Paris. In Canberra and Kabul, Cape Tow...
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In 2016, more than 175 countries signed on to an ambitious and entirely necessary plan designed to save the planet. The Paris Climate Agreement, made as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, set a common goal among all signatories: reduce carbon emissions enough to keep the global temperature from increasing more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from where it was during the pre-industrial era. Any increase beyond that could have irreversible effects on the planet. Ideally, the agreement posited, immediate action to move away from reliance on fossil fuels could help keep global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase — enough to substantially reduce any risks associated with climate change.

The Paris Agreement did not set any sort of standardization for how to achieve this goal. It left that up to each individual signatory to determine what was best for them. There is no mechanism that requires countries to set specific goals or timelines, it simply requires that the signees establish a target and, when they reach that goal, to set another, to establish another target that goes beyond the last mark.

We're now a full three years into the Paris Agreement establishing the very simple proposal of reducing carbon emissions by any way feasible. Our window for doing so is shrinking — a United Nations report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that we have until 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 2010 levels and until 2050 to reach net zero. Failing to do so would have potentially devastating consequences, ranging from extreme weather events like droughts and floods to rising oceans levels that could wipe out areas that are currently home to millions of people. The stakes couldn't be higher, so how are we doing?

Current goals aren't even ambitious enough to save the planet

The way the Paris Agreement works, countries are able to set their own goals in order to ensure that the changes make sense for their specific situation. The problem is that most countries have not met their initial pledges, which were already woefully insufficient. According to Climate Action Tracker, an organization that is monitoring the progress of 32 countries that signed onto the Paris Agreement as they establish and work toward goals, current levels of greenhouse gas emissions would result in a temperature increase of between 2.4 degrees and 4.3 degrees Celsius, with the most likely outcome about 3.2 degrees Celsius by 2100 without any intervention — more than double the actual goals for global warming limits set forth by the Paris Agreement.

Assuming every country that signed the Paris Agreement met their initial pledges, we would be able to curb some of that temperature rise, but not nearly enough to stave off the most devastating effects of climate change. According to Climate Action Tracker's estimates, current pledges would achieve a temperature increase of between 2.3 and 3.7 degrees Celsius — still not within the range of 1.5 to two degrees of warming established by the agreement. Climate Action Tracker warned that there is still about a 10 percent chance of exceeding a four degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2100 under current plans of action. Essentially, just about every country is failing to be ambitious enough to make a worthwhile dent in their carbon emissions and they are putting the world at risk through inaction.

More troubling is the fact that carbon emissions are actually on the rise. According to research published by the Global Carbon Project, we saw carbon emissions go up by 2.7 percent in 2018, driven in large part by an increase in oil consumption. That comes after a 1.6 percent uptick in overall emissions in 2017, which ended a three-year-long plateau in which emissions had actually slowed. By this metric, we're actually going backwards on one of the most important measures of our progress.

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Most countries meeting goals aren't major polluters

There are a few success stories to come out of this first batch of promises. Two African countries, Morocco and Gambia, represent the only two efforts that would currently be sufficient with the requirements to keep global temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is a cynical view that these countries have succeeded because they don't have nearly the infrastructure that a developed industrial nation has, but that would minimize the actual amount of progress and dedication the countries have made toward curbing carbon emissions. Morocco has started work on the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world and has started to ween itself off fossil fuels. The country is projected to get 42 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. Gambia, meanwhile, has established a plan to limit its emissions as it develops and is undergoing a reforestation project that should help to combat environmental erosion.

There are a handful of countries that are on the pace required to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, though many are not major polluters in the first place. Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and the Philippines are all on track for this goal. But perhaps the most surprising and promising country to achieve this level of greenhouse gas reduction is India, the third-biggest polluter in the world.

By all accounts, India should not be on the list of countries that are making significant progress. It is a massive, developing nation and still growing. It is one of the world's biggest economies and most populated areas. And yet it is on track to achieve greenhouse gas reductions in line with what is needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. India has become one of the global leaders in renewable energy and is on pace to generate 40 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020. The nation has also set an ambitious goal of making 100 percent of vehicles on its roads electric by 2030 and is already adding millions of electric vehicles on the road every year while combustion engine cars are becoming less popular.

Future steps are still few and far between

The catch to Climate Action Tracker's data is that the goals that countries are currently working toward aren't necessarily supposed to be the ones that save the world. They are just a first step meant to move countries in the right direction. The Paris Agreement requires countries to continue establishing more ambitious steps during new agreement periods, and there is one looming in 2020. So theoretically, countries could spend the first five years getting the ball rolling and then see a snowball effect in 2020 that leads to significant leaps in progress.

That unfortunately doesn't seem to be the case, though. Climate Watch Data records national climate commitments for every nation that signed the Paris Agreement. Countries are expected to make these additional commitments every five years. So far, just 13 countries have stated their intention to update their commitments in 2020 and continue to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Another 66 countries have declared their intention to significantly enhance their actions by 2020. The problem is that none of those countries that have actually committed themselves to the next steps of the Paris Agreement are major polluters. In total, the 79 countries already planning to up their pledge in 2020 make up just 9.5 percent of all global emissions. In order to actually make a dent in this problem, some of the world's biggest polluters need to show up in a big way, establishing ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions and actually make major strides toward those goals. So far, those countries are falling well short of what is needed from them.

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The United States is an absolute mess

One country that is desperately needed in this fight is the United States, and it is completely missing in action thanks to the Trump administration. One of President Trump's first major decisions once he took office was to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement — a move that made basically no sense since the agreement has exactly zero actual levers of enforcement and allows countries to establish their own goals and timelines. Trump deemed that complete lack of restrictions to be too strict and, barring an attempt to renegotiate the agreement — which, again, there is nothing to renegotiate because there are no actual firm requirements placed on countries that participate — the U.S. will drop from the Agreement on November 4, 2020, the earliest date withdrawal is allowed.

According to Climate Action Tracker, the United States' current carbon emission levels are excessively high and plans to address them "critically insufficient." If all countries approached the issue of climate change the way the U.S. does under Trump, we would be essentially guaranteed to see global warming of four degrees Celsius or more. Even under the Obama administration, the U.S.'s pledge for 2020 would have only moved the country into the "insufficient" range, though it would have represented progress in reducing the amount of greenhouse gas produced — a mark of progress for a country that is currently second in the world in total greenhouse emissions. Instead, the U.S. is now moving in the wrong direction and is projected to produce more emissions by 2030.

Climate Action Tracker estimates that if all Trump administration policies go into effect, the country release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. It will be like adding all of the emissions produced by the state of California in 2016 every single year. That reversal in emissions is driven by policies like rolling back car emissions standards, increasing drilling for natural gas and mining for coal despite inefficiencies and significant environmental damage caused by those fossil fuels, and ignoring the affordability and accessibility of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The United States is not alone in falling well short of what is needed of it. China, the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, has also failed to establish ambitious enough goals that would move it toward the goals set forth by the Paris Agreement. But the U.S. is one of the richest nations in the world and is supposed to be a world leader when it comes to science and innovation. This should be a chance for the U.S. to lead. In a way it is, just in the complete wrong direction.

What needs to be done

Put simply, drastic action needs to be taken globally by countries to reduce carbon emissions. We are well beyond the stage at which we can mess around. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be significantly reduced globally by 2030 and we need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That is no longer just a lofty goal but an actual requirement to keep the planet from burning.

If there is one good sign, especially for the United States, it is that just about every candidate running for president — save for the actual current President —would re-commit the the Paris Agreement. Most candidates have a fairly significant plan of action to address climate change, which is clearly becoming a more important political issue. Even 77 percent of young Republican voters recognize climate change as a serious threat, according to a recent Ipsos survey, suggesting that the issue is no longer dividing among political party lines but is a more universal concern.

For the rest of the world, moving away from fossil fuels isn't just feasible — it's the fiscally responsible thing to do. A recent Bloomberg report found that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are actually more affordable than coal and gas plants for nearly two-thirds of the world.

The idea of things like political will and economic cost being major obstacles to going green is falling away. Reducing carbon emissions has never been more popular, more palatable and more affordable. It's also never been more necessary. There is little stopping us from taking climate change seriously and doing everything in our power to address it. Failing to do so at this point would amount to negligence and could lead us down a path that we can never come back from. There's no reason we should mess this up. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we won't.