Paris climate summit put planet on course for 'catastrophic' warming despite being seen as success, study finds

While countries agreed to try to limit global warming to a rise of 1.5C, the actions they actually promised could see temperatures go up by twice that amount

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The Independent Online

The pledges made by countries at the historic Paris agreement on climate change would lead to “completely catastrophic” global warming, scientists have warned.

In a major analysis of 10 different studies into the effect of what world leaders promised to do, researchers calculated that the planet was still on course for a temperature increase of 2.6C to 3.1C by the end of this century.

Their finding was in sharp contrast to the landmark declaration in Paris in November last year that action would be taken to keep the rise to “well below” 2C and try to restrict it to 1.5C.

Writing in the journal Nature, a team of academics said that their projections based on the promises made by nation states at Paris showed the world was facing an “important challenge”.

“Further greater reductions in the coming decade and preparing for a global transformation of development pathways is critical,” they wrote.

One of the researchers, Professor Niklas Höhne, of the New Climate Institute in Cologne, told The Independent: “Three degrees of warming would be what I describe as completely catastrophic and this is definitely what we need to avoid.

“Even two degrees is not a very pleasant situation, with significantly more droughts and floods and weather events … not a very pleasant world. There’s also the risk of tipping points and irreversible change.

“We are going a step in the right direction, but we are definitely far away from where we should be. We are going a third in the right direction and we still have two-thirds to do.”

Mark Lynas, the author of the award-winning book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, predicted that three degrees of warming would have a devastating impact on the world. 

For example, the Indian monsoon, which was a week late this year and is essential for billions of people, would likely fail, the Amazonian rainforest would dry out and life in much of South America would become increasingly difficult because of the searing heat and smoke from wildfires, and the west coast of the US – already suffering from severe droughts – would suffer from rampant wildfires and a lack of water to fight them.

New York City would experience regular flooding, extreme Atlantic storms would hit the UK, Spain and France while countries around the Mediterranean would start to develop new deserts. Vast numbers of people would be forced to move as large areas of Africa in particular become uninhabitable, leading to conflict and war. It would also, Mr Lynas warned, cross a number of “tipping points” that would speed up the rate of climate change with wildfires releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

However Professor Höhne expressed confidence that countries would increase their targets to reduce carbon emissions to avoid this fate, saying that the pledges at Paris were simply the “first step” and that it had been acknowledged at the time that they would not be sufficient.

“The national contributions and the long-term goal in the Paris agreement are not yet consistent,” he said.

“But I’m optimistic more can be done and more will be done. Countries are conservative about what they put on the table, but I’m pretty sure they can do more.”

On Thursday, the UK Government is due to reveal how much of a cut will be made to greenhouse gases with the Guardian reporting that it will commit to a 57 per cent reduction in emissions by 2032.

And Professor Höhne said: “That would definitely be the order of magnitude that is necessary.”

But he said it was also important that the EU agreed to something similar, noting that Germany and the UK had been “driving climate policy in the EU”.

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said the Paris agreement had been "a major step forward".

"Firstly, it led to governments pledging significant constraints on greenhouse gas emissions. And secondly, it’s set up a process that will show people regularly how those governments are doing both against their promises and against the timetable laid out by climate science," he said.

“As [the Nature paper] shows, the existing pledges won’t meet the goal governments set of keeping global warming well below 2C. But if you look at real-world events since December – Asian countries cancelling coal projects, oil companies generating 2C scenarios, European nations setting tougher emission goals – we see that the Paris deal is already giving governments new confidence and strengthening the challenges facing fossil fuel companies. And all that will in turn enable governments to agree tighter targets in the years ahead.”

Felipe Calderón, the former president of Mexico and now president of The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, told the Business & Climate Summit in London on Wednesday that the deal struck in Paris – hailed as a historic breakthrough at the time – was only a first step.

“Even though we all know how difficult those agreements were to reach, I dare to say that was the easy part of all of this. The hard part now is to fulfil our promises,” he said.

“Now it’s time to make real things happen on the ground. We need to focus on getting the job done. We need to be a little bit sceptical about governments. We need to keep pressing them to deliver it.”

He urged the world to concentrate on creating a sustainable infrastructure.

“Infrastructure could be either the pillar upon which we base our development and prosperity or it could lock us into a high-carbon path and therefore become the gravestone that marks the failure of our civilisation,” he said.

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