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Plans to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions Not Enough, Analysts Say

World leaders will head into the Conference of Parties summit in Paris in December with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 2030, but reports published this week suggest that those plans still don't do enough to limit global warming below a critical benchmark.

The world’s countries have put together plans to cut large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, but analyses of the plans released this week conclude that it’s still not enough to avoid the worst projected impacts of global warming.

In order to limit severe droughts and flooding, the world has set its sights on a goal: capping the world's temperature increase relative to pre-industrial times to below 2 degrees Celsius through the end of the century. The “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) documents submitted to the United Nations are meant to lay a groundwork for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reach that goal.

But with the plans countries have submitted to the U.N. as of the Sept. 30 deadline, two climate change analysis groups have projected that warming would still be far above that goal. On Thursday, the mostly European research collaborative Climate Action Tracker (CAT) projected warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius. A Monday estimate from the Washington, D.C.-based Climate Interactive was even worse — a projected warming of 3.5 degrees Celsius.

Both reports cast the projections in at least somewhat of a positive light. They might not meet the 2 degrees goal, but they do make an impact. Under “business-as-usual” assumptions, the groups respectively projected warming of 3.1 and 4.5 degrees Celsius. The scenario in which all countries meet the commitments outlined in the INDCs, then, represent an improvement of between 0.4 and 1 degree of warming.

The differences between the two projections, according to Climate Interactive spokesperson Jennifer Haskell, have to do with each group’s assumptions about what world governments would do after 2030.

“Any analysis, including ours, that offers an expected temperature change in 2100 includes assumptions about what will happen after 2025 or 2030 since few of the pledges are explicit about what happens after that,” Haskell wrote in an email to Government Technology.

The Climate Action Tracker report also included individual ratings for the INDCs of 17 countries and the European Union that account for 71 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The plan for the U.S., the second-largest emitter after China, according to the World Resources Institute, was given a rating of “medium.” That means that the plan supports the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but no more.

“The ‘medium’ rating indicates that the U.S. climate plans are at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution,” CAT researchers wrote on the group’s website. “If all countries would choose the least ambitious end of their respective range, global temperature increase would be well above 2 [degrees Celsius].”

The U.S. INDC calls for the country to, by 2025, reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels, a goal the document describes as “fair and ambitious.”

The White House has announced several initiatives in recent weeks to meet its targets, including lowering methane emissions from landfills, requiring tougher carbon standards for power plants and investing in the development of offshore wind energy — a renewable resource the U.S. has yet to touch.

After meeting the 2025 goal, the INDC says the U.S. will continue making “deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050.”

In CAT’s eyes, not all INDCs did even as well as the mediocre U.S. plan. Of the 18 plans the group gave ratings to, eight were labeled “inadequate.” That included some of the largest emitters in the world, such as Russia and Japan — though taken altogether, the eight “inadequate” countries only account for 13.4 percent of emissions, about 2 percent less than the U.S. by itself.

The inadequacies of Russia’s plan were based largely on its failure to account for the effects of forestry on net emissions, which means that instead of reducing emissions 25 to 30 percent below 1990 levels, the plan allows for the country to reduce greenhouse gases 6 to 11 percent below 1990 levels.

The other INDCs that CAT labeled as “inadequate” belonged to Japan, Canada, South Korea, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

Only two of the 18 plans were “sufficient” — Ethiopia’s and Morocco’s. Together, those countries account for less than half a percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The further away from the 2 degrees Celsius goal the world is by 2025, the harder it could be to catch up to that goal by the end of the century, CAT researchers wrote in their analysis. With that in mind, they called on world leaders to strengthen their plans ahead of the 21st Conference of Parties summit in Paris in December, where world leaders plan to negotiate greenhouse gas reduction agreements.

“Based on the climate action promised under the INDCs, it is now clear that governments at the Paris climate conference need to consider a formal acknowledgement that there is an insufficient level of mitigation ambition for 2025 and 2030 to limit warming below 2 [degrees Celsius],” the paper reads.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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