Leaders from nearly 200 countries are attending a special United Nations Summit on climate change today. They are facing increasing pressure from citizens around the world to cut global greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.
As of now, global emissions are on track to cause potentially catastrophic climate change in the coming decades.
The summit will begin a process for the 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 business 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.”
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 rain storms and droughts. Economic costs associated with such disasters continue to mount.
Almost 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.
“Right now if you take up all the pledges that governments have put forward for the Paris Agreement, we’re looking at about three-and-a-half degrees [Celsius] of warming by 2100,” explains Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.
“We’re way off,” says Hsu. “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 two 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.
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,” says Hsu. “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.