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Five years of the Paris Agreement: Calls for climate action continue

Tuesday, December 29th 2020, 2:33 pm - Hundreds of national governments and some of the biggest corporations in the world have made significant strides in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, but scientists say that the momentum needs to continue to decarbonize the global economy.

December 13, 2020 marked the five year anniversary of the Paris Agreement, a landmark international effort that calls for nearly 200 countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions and prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising 2°C, ideally 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels.

Numerous milestones have been reached since the Paris Agreement was put into action. A 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency found that unsubsidized renewable energy is frequently the cheapest source of energy generation, some of the biggest global organizations, such as Amazon, Google, and Apple, declared carbon neutral targets, peak oil demand was possibly reached in 2019, and over 70 countries committed to net zero emissions by 2050.

While global greenhouse gas emissions have steadily risen over the years, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent decline in economic activity caused an unprecedented dip in emissions — 7 per cent lower in comparison to 2019 levels. Relatedly, the Global Carbon Project stated that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 resulted in a similar emissions decline of 1.5 per cent, which reflects the magnitude of how drastic the lifestyle of billions of people can have on carbon emission targets set forth by the Paris Agreement.

Emissions gap report 2020 Reduction in emissions in 2020 relative to 2019 levels due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Credit: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020

The rapid response to the pandemic demonstrates that lifestyle changes can lower emissions, but experts say that a pandemic is not a solution to climate change. Despite this year’s declining level of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the previous year, the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report states that projections indicate the world will warm 3°C by 2100. Impacts from a 3°C warming include extensive flooding of coastal communities as sea levels rise, significant ice melt at both poles, and increasingly frequent severe weather events.

The Emissions Gap Report analyzes the commitments that countries have made to reduce emissions, the actions these countries have taken, and what needs to be done to limit global warming well below 2°C. The ‘emissions gap’ is defined as “where we are likely to be and where we need to be,” and the report says that utilizing COVID-19 economic recovery measures to open a low-carbon transition is critical to bridging this gap. In fact, the only scenario that projects a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is when COVID-19 measures pursue a decarbonized economy.

Power County, Idaho, USA. Credit: Science in HD via Unsplash Power County, Idaho, USA. Credit: Science in HD via Unsplash

Some early COVID-19 measures that will benefit the environment and the economy include support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, support for low-carbon transport, and nature-based solutions including reforestation. Future recommendations include policies that incentivize improved fuel efficiency in aviation, phasing out coal, incentives for cities to build infrastructure for cycling and car-sharing, and improving the energy efficiency of housing and renewable energy from grid providers.

While 2020 did see a 7 per cent decline in emissions, the Emissions Gap Report says that this dip will result in at most a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050, a point in time that will have likely surpassed a warming of 1.5°C. However, experts emphasize that there were many actions taken in 2020 that demonstrate the capacity to slow climate change. The report says that this year’s “most significant and encouraging” developments in climate policy are the increasing number of countries that are committing to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Thumbnail credit: Luke Thornton via Unsplash

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