Skip to Content

As Paris Talks Near, Emissions Pledges Fall Short

Heading into the latest round of international climate negotiations, renewed optimism around country emissions pledges is clouded by still-gloomy warming forecasts.
November 20, 2015

With diplomats and policymakers set to gather in Paris for the latest round of international negotiations on climate change on November 30, there is something new in the air: optimism. For the first time since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, many analysts and stakeholders believe there’s a real chance of achieving a specific agreement on reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions that are already causing dramatic changes to the world’s climate.

At dawn, Mumbai is bathed in the smoke from nearby factories.

That confidence springs, in part, from the voluntary commitments already made by countries that will participate in the summit, the 21st meeting of nations since the adoption of the U.N. Framework on Climate Change in 1994. The largest climate summit to date, the Paris conference, is expected to produce an agreement that includes concrete limits on countries’ emissions of greenhouse gases—a milestone, even if it’s not in the form of a legally binding treaty.

With the notable exception of India, every major country in the world has announced targets for reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Known as intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs, these pledges come from 161 countries that together account for 93 percent of global emissions.

Unfortunately, those pledges are insufficient to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 °C—the threshold necessary to avert catastrophic economic and social consequences, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The national contributions “bend the emissions curve down to a temperature rise of approximately 3 °C” by the end of the century, said U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at a meeting last week of the Group of 20, an international forum for the world’s major economies. “This is significant progress. But it is not enough.”

According to the Climate Scoreboard, produced by Climate Interactive, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C., the national commitments should limit warming by 2100 to around 3.5 °C, or halfway from the business-as-usual scenario (4 to 5 °C) to the 2 °C threshold.

“One can envision an agreement in Paris that would get us at least another halfway there, something that, with suitable progress at subsequent conferences, could indeed get us to 2 °C maximum warming,” says climate scientist Michael Mann, the director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University.

That’s the optimistic view. Another problem is that the national pledges are just that: pledges, with no binding treaty or penalties to back them up. This flaw was highlighted when the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, said in an interview last week with the Financial Times that any agreement in Paris is “definitively not going to be a treaty” and would not include legally binding reduction targets. European leaders, who have called for enforceable reduction plans in the face of opposition from developing nations and from the U.S., reacted with alarm to Kerry’s comments.

Nevertheless, the willingness of countries like China, the United States, and Russia to commit to emissions restrictions provides a new opportunity to move beyond the arguments that have stifled progress on climate change to date. “On the plus side, people are talking about specific numbers, and that hasn’t been the case in the past,” says Martin Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard who studies the environmental and economic consequences of climate change. “Nations are about to quote-unquote commit to greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets. That’s a first step on the way to anything.”  

Keep Reading

Most Popular

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

protein structures
protein structures

DeepMind says it will release the structure of every protein known to science

The company has already used its protein-folding AI, AlphaFold, to generate structures for the human proteome, as well as yeast, fruit flies, mice, and more.

ASML machine
ASML machine

Inside the machine that saved Moore’s Law

The Dutch firm ASML spent $9 billion and 17 years developing a way to keep making denser computer chips.

brain map
brain map

This is what happens when you see the face of someone you love

The moment we recognize someone, a lot happens all at once. We aren’t aware of any of it.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.