The world has been put on notice that its best efforts so far will fail to halt the devastation of climate change, as countries came to a partial agreement at UN talks that failed to match up to the challenges faced.
Leading figures in climate science and economics said much more must be done, and quickly, to stave off the prospect of dangerous levels of global warming.
Nicholas Stern, the former World Bank chief economist and author of a seminal review of the economics of climate change, said: “It is clear that the progress we are making is inadequate, given the scale and urgency of the risks we face. The latest figures show carbon dioxide emissions are still rising. A much more attractive, clean and efficient path for economic development and poverty reduction is in our hands.”
Johan Rockstrom, director designate at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: “My biggest concern is that the UN talks failed to align ambitions with science. We continue to follow a path that will take us to a very dangerous 3-4C warmer world within this century. Extreme weather events hit people across the planet already, at only 1C of warming.”
The two-week-long UN talks in Poland ended with clarity over the “rulebook” that will govern how the Paris agreement of 2015 is put into action, but the crucial question of how to lift governments’ targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was left unanswered.
Countries will meet again next year. The annual climate talks have been going on since 1992 when the UN framework convention on climate change was signed, binding governments to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. That agreement followed years of scientific predictions on global warming, culminating in a landmark report in 1988 that warned of the dangers.
Since then, the warnings have grown clearer and scientists have eliminated the possibility that the global warming observed in recent decades has been due to natural forces. It is a manmade problem arising from the use of fossil fuels, which has poured the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
On current national emissions-cutting targets, the world would reach more than 3C of warming, scientists say. Two months ago the world’s leading body of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, found that even 1.5C of warming would cause sea level rises, coral reef die-off, extinction of species and droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves that would threaten the world’s stability.
Levels of warming greater than that would devastate parts of the globe, wiping out agricultural productivity, melting the Arctic ice cap and rendering many areas uninhabitable.
Some businesses called on governments to act. Stephanie Pfeifer, chief executive of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, which represents investors with more than $21tn (£16.7tn) in funds, said: “It is vital that the world’s governments recognise the serious challenge posed by climate change and urgently scale up their efforts, both at a national level and globally. It is only through signals such as these that investors will have the confidence necessary to allocate the required capital to the low-carbon and climate-resilient transition.”
Next year’s negotiations, in Chile, are likely to focus on narrow technical issues. But the 2020 conference, which may be held in the UK or Italy, will be the biggest since the landmark Paris agreement of 2015. There, countries will have to come up with plans for cutting emissions drastically in order to avert a climate crisis that scientists say will cause greater economic, social and natural disruption than anything in humanity’s history.