Paris Agreement anniversary: What needs to happen in the next five years to tackle the climate crisis?

Scientists, politicians and activists from across the world tell Daisy Dunne what they hope to see before the 10-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement

Friday 11 December 2020 18:50
Flames rise near homes during the Blue Ridge wildfire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California. A new poll has found that the majority of Americans think we are running out of time to save the planet from the climate crisis
Flames rise near homes during the Blue Ridge wildfire on October 27, 2020 in Chino Hills, California. A new poll has found that the majority of Americans think we are running out of time to save the planet from the climate crisis

This week marks five years since countries reached a deal for the Paris Agreement, a historic treaty aimed at keeping global warming to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels, with the aspiration of keeping temperatures to 1.5C.

To mark the anniversary, The Independent has asked scientists, politicians and activists from across the world to describe what they would like to see happen within the next five years to see the world shift to be in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Here are their views, sent from Nigeria, the Philippines, Germany, the US, India, Uganda and the UK.

Prof Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, US:

The Paris Agreement is like a potluck dinner. Every country commits to bringing a dish, their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”. Some focus on reforestation to reduce net carbon emissions, while others invest clean energy sources, emphasize efficiency, or put a price on carbon and let the market decide where to cut emissions most effectively.  

According to the Climate Action Tracker, though, current policies will only limit the increase in global temperature to between 2.1 to 3.9C. That means there isn’t enough food on the table. In the next five years, we need more.  

The world’s highest per capita emitters, currently bringing little to the table – the US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – must contribute their fair share. Others who are already acting must follow the UK’s lead and up their contributions. But if the world is to have any chance of meeting its Paris target, the bottom line is this: new fossil fuel development cannot continue.  

There are some heartening signs from the financial industry, with Blackrock, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup announcing they will no longer fund new coal or Arctic drilling projects. But that is not enough.

Canada’s Parliamentary committee found that its TransMountain pipeline won’t be profitable under more stringent climate goals; most carbon capture and sequestration technologies produce more CO2 than they remove; and while China’s own coal use has declined, it continues to finance new coal-fired generation abroad.  

In the next five years, the success of the Paris Agreement hinges on this: can we agree to leave fossil fuels in the ground?

Oladosu Adenike, young climate activist, Nigeria:

As young people, we have been raising awareness of our demand for emissions targets to be met.  

The Paris Agreement is the roadmap towards building a sustainable pathway for all. It is one thing to set the track and it is another thing to be on the track in meeting it. This next five years is a crucial point in turning things around for the good of the people.

The climate crisis is leading humanity into more crises that can hamper development. As we begin the decade of restoration, it is important that no degraded landscape is left behind because our landscape is a determinant of development and strong institution.

In the next five years, our advocacy on the restoration of Lake Chad should have been met due to the fact that the restoration of Lake Chad is key toward tackling the regional instability. We have had enough of the negotiations and agreements signed, it is time we make those commitments attainable.

To make the Paris Agreement work, there must be a means of transparency and accountability within the framework, as well as legal action attached as a fine for not meeting up such commitments within the time interval.

Because the Paris Agreement is still flexible that any country can opt out and at any point in time, there is still no major progress recorded so far. If we could continue this way, we will not be able to save the world from climate destruction. And where there are no rules and regulations, there are no forbidden actions. No wonder the US left the Paris Agreement because there is no rule to stop such an action.  

Lord (Zac) Goldsmith of Richmond Park, international environment minister, UK:

Without meaningful action, the world is on course for around 3-5C of temperature rise by 2100, which would cause massive ecological disruption, a global food crisis and unprecedented poverty.  

At the same time, we are destroying life on Earth. Each minute we lose around thirty football pitches worth of tropical forests. We have seen a 70 per cent decline in key species since 1970 – a nanosecond in evolutionary terms, and the ocean environment is being stripped of life just as quickly.

These crises are inextricably linked. Deforestation and land degradation is the second biggest source of emissions, and there is no pathway to tackling the climate crisis without massive efforts to restore and protect nature.

Deforestation and land degradation is the second biggest source of emissions, says Lord Goldsmith

So countries need to commit to net zero emissions, and map out a plan for achieving it as a matter of urgency. The UK was the first major economy to set this goal, and last week we took another step forward with a commitment to reduce emissions by 68 per cent by 2030.

The technological transition is already happening, far faster than anyone predicted. Zero emissions vehicles are on the cusp of going mainstream and the cost of renewables has plummeted. But nature is being side-lined. Nature based solutions, like forests, mangroves and peatlands could provide about a third of the solution we need, as well as helping reverse the biodiversity crisis and preventing poverty. But they receive less than 3 per cent of global climate finance.

So governments need both to commit serious finance for nature, and urgently address the main drivers of degradation. That means removing deforestation from our supply chains, as we are doing with our new laws to stop big businesses using commodities that cause illegal deforestation overseas.

And it means shifting destructive land use subsidies (700bn of which are dished out each year by the 50 biggest food producing countries) towards supporting the environment. Here too the UK is providing leadership as the first country to begin switching to a subsidy system that is conditional on looking after the environment.

In the next five years we need to get to grips with deforestation, bend the curve of biodiversity loss, and to have begun restoring degraded ecosystems on a global scale.

Prof Mike Mann, director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University, US:

This is a big question. Big enough that I have in essence written a whole book about it. In short, we need to first recognise the changing nature of the climate battle.

As outright denial becomes untenable, fossil fuel interests and other bad actors – the “inactivists” as I call them – have turned to other tactics to block action, creating division, despair and doom-mongering among climate advocates and deflecting attention away from policy action toward individual behavioural change.

One important thing we’ve learnt is that individual efforts alone aren’t enough to achieve, let alone ratchet up (as is necessary now) Paris commitments. Even the massive lockdown policies of the past year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic will likely only yield a 5 per cent or so reduction in global carbon emissions this year.

We need to exceed that, reducing emissions at least 7 per cent a year for the next decade, if we are to remain on a path that meets the aspirational goals of the Paris Agreement of stabilizing warming below 1.5C. To do that, we need a massive global mobilisation. The good news is that, with the election of Joe Biden as president, the US now rejoins that effort. To quote a favorite film: “Welcome back to the fight, America.”

The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Prof Mann is due out in February in the UK

Dr Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, US:

The Paris Agreement provides a powerful framework for global climate action – but its goals can only be met if nations implement robust, equitable, and durable climate policies.

Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the necessary transformative changes that would put the world on a pathway consistent with achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Over the next five years, we need to see a reinvigorated international climate regime, built on a strong foundation of cooperation.

To get us back on track, well ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow, a large group of major emitting countries must make credible commitments to steep emission reductions by 2030. The EU, UK, Japan, Korea, and China have signaled an early intention to do so. Under president Joe Biden, the US must once more join the ranks of responsible nations and do its fair share.

Countries must implement domestic policies to decisively transition away from coal to renewable electricity, which is now the cheapest form of new power in most places; electrify many energy uses; ramp up energy efficiency; and invest in healthier soils and forests which help store carbon. Richer nations must also make good on delivering climate finance for developing countries to help them get on a low-carbon pathway and better cope with climate impacts which are already unfolding in devastating ways.

The private sector must reorient businesses toward a low-carbon, climate resilient future.

Crucially, as the world sets a course to emerge from the current pandemic and economic crisis, policymakers must connect near-term imperatives to create jobs and jump start the economy with the longer-term necessity to shift to a zero-carbon, healthier and more sustainable economy. 

Dr Bill Hare, CEO and senior scientist at Climate Analytics, Germany:

By Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021, we need to see a massive improvement in countries ambition for 2030 that matches the net zero promises being made by countries. This is so that, at the end of 2021, we can calculate whether, if all countries met their new 2030 commitments, there would be a good chance of warming being below 2C by 2100.

In the following year, these new ambitious commitments would need to be matched by ambitious policies. That could lead to a calculation that the effects of countries’ policies in place in the period to 2030 would be consistent with holding warming well below 2C by 2100.

By 2025, following the global stocktake in 2023, we would need to see all countries come forward with high ambition commitments for emission reductions by 2035 that put the world, if implemented, fully under the pathway to limit global mean warming to 1.5C, the Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal.  

Jacques Fallaria, young climate activist, the Philippines:

The main goal of the Paris Agreement is to ensure that the global average temperature increase remains well below 1.5C. If we fail to achieve that target, we are putting humanity at the brink of its collapse.

We, the youth, are questioning our future. We know that there is a need to aim for carbon neutrality, net-zero or at least reduced carbon emissions.

We also believe that we have to ensure that our communities, especially the most vulnerable, are well-capacitated to mitigate and adapt to the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, especially knowing our country is one of those nations that is and that will be the most affected by this existential crisis.

The value of having a healthy and livable planet outweighs the money they can get from fossil fuel industries and companies that significantly influence and destroy the Earth's natural climate. They have wasted many years already in negotiating on those matters.

Villagers wade on flood water brought by a lahar flow due to typhoon Goni at the foot of Mayon volcano in The Philippines

The youth has had enough because the efforts to save our only planet, our only future, are still not enough. Now more than ever, we need to see concrete manifestations of their commitment, more than just signing the Paris Agreement. We need to see their plans in addressing the climate crisis. This must also include seeking accountability from the perpetrators of the climate crisis who are primarily behind the climate injustice and human rights violations of thousands of millions of lives, who have lost the chance to live in a cleaner and a sustainable world.

More importantly, we also need to regulate the implementation of the actions of our leaders and their strategies. At the same time, more funds should be allocated to the developing countries to make sure that they are better capacitated and resilient.

Baroness (Natalie) Bennett, Green Party peer, UK:

In the UK, we are on one very particular measure, two-thirds of the way to meeting our 2050 net zero target. The first two steps have been taken: we now have a broad understanding of the reality and urgency of the climate emergency, and even those who are not natural allies are talking a lot about doing something about it.

The third step, however, is by an exponential scale the largest and has to be completed essentially in the next five years: it involves stepping up from talking about climate action to delivering it at the required scale across these islands. That doesn’t mean pilot projects or short-term dumps of money like the Green Homes Fund, but consistent, long-term, properly funded, stable policies, grounded in community involvement and genuine democracy, from community-owned renewables schemes to control over bus routes, times and costs.

That shouldn’t be a hard sell for any government: it means also delivering hundreds of thousands of jobs and huge numbers of new business opportunities, cleaner air, lower energy bills and healthier, tastier food.

But it does mean taking on established, entrenched, wealthy interests, that are currently freeloading, such as Amazon, the supermarkets and multinational food companies, imposing massive environmental and social costs on all of us. They get away with low pay for their workers, massive environmental damages and hidden subsidies, from tax breaks for fossil fuel firms to massive tax-dodging, and we all pay: it is costing us the Earth, and our health.

Holly Gillibrand, young climate activist, UK:

We need to start treating this crisis as a crisis. It will require massive system-wide changes and we may not have all the solutions right now, but when you treat a crisis as a crisis, that doesn't matter.

We didn't have all the solutions for coronavirus, so we used what we had at the time and evolved our strategy along the way.

That means we don't put off action on climate and ecological breakdown on the gamble that in a few decades we will have the technology to tackle it, and it also means not creating targets 30 years from now instead of focusing on the problem today. It means not failing teenagers like me by prioritising money over people's lives and this beautiful planet.

Prof Piers Forster, director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, UK:

It’s a long Christmas list of practical steps. The first thing we need is comprehensive national strategies to deliver on net zero commitments. This needs to come with a huge public and business engagement program to make sure that we are in this journey together, understand what is needed and that strategies are fair.

This should come with strong international commitments and a regulatory framework that commits developed countries to help others and release massive private investments for building net zero. This investment needs to speed up renewable energy programs and better grid infrastructure. Coal power, unless it comes with carbon capture and storage, could really do with being phased out within the next five years globally. The investments need to drive electric cars, roll out charging points and the retrofitting of our homes.

At the same time, niche technologies, such as heat pumps and hydrogen-powered vehicles, need to become mainstream. We need to massively increase tree planting rates as well as forest protection and restoration everywhere. For example, tree planting rates in the UK need to increase to around 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, a threefold increase.

Carbon capture and storage technologies need demonstrating at scale and a funding mechanism for these technologies such as fossil fuel companies paying to capture the carbon they emit. Local governments need empowering to deliver local net zero solutions.

Lastly, we need to change ourselves, we need to eat less red meat and dairy, drive and fly less. If we do all this we will have gone a long way to a healthier, greener and more equitable future.  

Mulindwa Guy, young climate activist, Uganda:

The climate crisis is a very complex issue and a dangerous one so we have to listen to the scientists and take action immediately. Scientists have suggested many great ways on how to combat the climate crisis, though as human beings we are still in denial of when and where to apply them.

Talking about my country, Uganda, and Africa at large, we have a very big problem of ignorance about the climate crisis, and there’s no way you can solve a problem that you don’t know exists.

For us to attain the Paris Agreement, leaders from the global south and news outlets have to create as much awareness as possible to the population about the climate crisis and encourage them to take climate action.

Because developing countries are poor and therefore can’t fund expensive ways of combating the climate crisis, we also demand countries from the global north to cut their carbon emissions drastically, stop fossil fuels companies and promote use of renewable energy globally.

Prof Govindasamy Bala, atmospheric scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, India:

Because of Covid-19, annual CO2 emissions in 2020 are expected to decline by about 7-8 per cent but this decline is unlikely to be sustained in the coming years.

However, to achieve the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C by year 2100, humanity should prepare to reduce emissions by similar amounts year after year in the next 30 years so we reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To limit global warming to 2C, 4-5 per cent annual reductions year after year would be needed in the next 50 years.

This appears like an insurmountable task, given the fact that we derive nearly 85 per cent of our energy from fossil fuels today. However, we can achieve these reductions with a portfolio of realistic solutions such as lifestyle changes including energy conservation, changes to diet and reduced travel, improvements in energy efficiency and huge investments in wind and solar energy. Storage and intermittency issues should be priority areas of research in the next five years.

The feed-in tariff for solar power generation has been halved

Nature-based solutions such as massive afforestation and soil carbon management, which remove CO2  from the atmosphere, could help to reduce the requirements of emission reductions to some extent.

Governments need to set the stage for the drastic reductions in CO2 emissions and CO2 removals in the next five years by framing climate-friendly policies. Last, but not the least, is the growing world population. Perhaps, we should do more to create awareness about the link between population, food, water, energy and climate change.  

Prof Dave Reay, director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation at the University Of Edinburgh, UK:

The much-touted “green recovery” needs to actually happen; everywhere and for everyone. 

National investments and policies to recover from Covid over the next five years will either lock in emissions that make the Paris climate goals impossible, or they will underpin a sustained economy-wide transition towards net zero that gives Paris a fighting chance.

The precise policies and actions required will vary by state and region, but they all need ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions as their basis, alongside unprecedented levels of international cooperation on climate finance, carbon pricing, technology transfer and capacity-building.

The latter, for me, is the biggest need of them all. Whether it’s training to meet a ballooning demand for green jobs, extension services to make the global food system “climate-smart”, or the mainstreaming of climate literacy into schools, businesses and government, no amount of finance or shiny kit will deliver the Paris Goals if those who need it can’t use it.

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