GLASGOW, United Kingdom — With science warning that only swift action can avoid cataclysmic global warming, countries already feeling the lash of climate change are demanding that the timetable for updating national carbon-cutting pledges be radically accelerated.
Currently, the nearly 200 nations that submitted voluntary emissions reduction schemes under the 2015 Paris Agreement have agreed to update those plans every five years, a process described as a “ratchet mechanism”.
The first set of revisions came due at the end of 2020, but most were not submitted until this year because of the Covid pandemic.
China, by far the world’s top carbon polluter, filed its update only last week, and India — the number four emitter — did so at the COP26 summit in Glasgow on Monday.
But even if all national pledges are honoured — a big “if” — Earth’s surface would still warm a “catastrophic” 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to the UN, a far cry from the Paris treaty target of 1.5C.
The next scheduled rendezvous for upping ambition isn’t until 2025.
Sobering projections, however, from the UN’s science authority along with a crescendo of unprecedented heatwaves, flooding and wildfires, strongly suggest this is not soon enough.
Leading the charge for a more compressed timetable is UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“Let’s have no illusions,” he said on the opening day of the talks.
“If commitments fall short by the end of the COP, countries must revisit their national climate plans and policies. Not every five years. Every year, until keeping 1.5C is assured.”
The idea got further backing on Thursday from Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, who said “major emitters” should raise their 2030 targets at every annual climate conference until they are aligned with the 1.5C goal.
“We’re hoping, expecting, this COP will respond to our demands as a moral compass of the international community,” he said at a press conference.
Various proposals for including a call for nations to review and improve plans to shrink their carbon footprints are already “on the table” in preliminary discussions among negotiators, according several sources at the talks.
A first draft — known as a “non-paper” in UN climate jargon — could be circulated as early as Friday, they said.
Momentum has been building on the issue.
More than 50 developing countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum, have called for a pact that would “mandate yearly ambition raising for governments, and especially major carbon emitters for every year through to 2025”.
G20 nations, which account for nearly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have also indicated an openness to up the pace.
A communique issued on Sunday at the close of the G20 summit in Rome committed to “further action this decade”, but it was trailed by a string of caveats indicating just how difficult ramping up carbon reduction pledges in the short term is going to be.
“It depends on the language,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at climate policy think tank E3G.
“If it sounds like it’s mandatory, then China and other countries will say that is re-interpreting the Paris Agreement — which is correct.”
While signatories are collectively enjoined to reach the treaty’s temperature targets, individual contributions are strictly on a voluntary basis.
A call for yearly updates would also run into a practical problem, analysts pointed out.
It took years of internal wrangling before the European Union succeeded in increasing it’s 2030 target for greenhouse reduction from 40 to 55 percent, compared to 1990 levels.
Trying to do that every year — whether in the EU, the United States or Japan — would be nearly impossible, they suggest.
A more realistic goals would be picking an interim year by which nations would be asked to submit new plans on a voluntary basis.
“Most people have been talking about 2023,” said Meyer.
The Paris Agreement mandates a “stock take” in that year, an accounting exercise to evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to date.
The best that countries pushing for yearly — or more frequent — updates of carbon reduction plans can hope for, Meyer and other veterans of the UN climate process agree, is something aspirational.
“Anything beyond an encouragement for greater efforts on a voluntary basis would be a non-starter for China, India and Russia,” said a senior diplomat.
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