Scientists: Nations need stronger pledges to curb climate change

Quicker action on emissions urged in run-up to Madrid conference, as US withdraws from landmark Paris Agreement.

    Protesters from climate change awareness group Extinction Rebellion chant slogans at the lobby of the Africa Oil Week conference in Cape Town, South Africa [Noah Browning/Reuters]
    Protesters from climate change awareness group Extinction Rebellion chant slogans at the lobby of the Africa Oil Week conference in Cape Town, South Africa [Noah Browning/Reuters]

    The vast majority of national commitments in the 2015 Paris Agreement are inadequate to prevent the worst effects of global warming, a group of scientists said on Tuesday, naming the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries as among those that must ratchet up their efforts.

    Of the 184 pledges that countries made under the climate agreement, only 36 are ambitious enough to help reach the agreement's goal of keeping global warming at a level that is less than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the report said.

    "Governments are moving in the right direction, but nowhere near enough, so hopefully they will be willing to take on much stronger commitments" in next month's United Nations climate summit in Spain, said Robert Watson, lead author of the report by the nonprofit Universal Ecological Fund.

    Watson, a former chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the report could be read two ways: "You can read, 'my God it's hopeless', or 'my God this is a wake-up call'."

    He estimated that even if all nations meet their existing pledges, the world would be headed for temperature rise of between 3 and 3.5 degrees Celsius - which will almost certainly lead to more extreme weather, rising sea levels and the loss of plant and animal species.

    The report said nearly 75 percent of countries - 136 nations - have insufficient pledges, including major carbon emitters China, the United States and India. Another dozen pledges - from countries including Australia, Japan and Brazil - were judged only partially sufficient by the report.

    The US was ranked as insufficient because President Donald Trump reversed former President Barack Obama's climate policies and yanked Washington out of the pact. The administration, which argues the Paris Agreement would cost US taxpayers too much money, filed official paperwork on Monday to withdraw from the agreement.

    Both India and China - the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases - came in as insufficient because their pledges focus on carbon intensity targets, which lower emissions per unit of gross domestic product. Because those economies are growing and coal produces much of their electricity, total emissions have risen sharply even though carbon intensity levels in China and India have fallen.

    The report rated the European Union's 28 member states as having sufficient pledges because they aim to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 40 percent below the 1990 level by the year 2030.

    Countries at next month's summit in Madrid will hash out some details of the international pact to curb warming. Chile withdrew as the host of the summit following weeks of riots protesting against inequality in the country.

    'Solve any climate issue'

    As the globe was gearing up for the Madrid summit, US Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg said on Tuesday that his country can tackle climate change by relying on technological advances  rather than top-down global regulation.

    The world should look up to the US as a role model for reducing emissions, said Winberg, who works for the US Department of Energy, at an international oil conference in South Africa.

    He added that fossil fuels will remain crucial for the US government and business.

    "We can solve any climate issue with technology development," said Winberg, a former coal executive at Consol Energy Inc. "One thing you see back in US history is we have consistently solved challenges that were put before us."

    The top historic greenhouse gas emitter and a leading oil and gas producer, the US is the only party to the Paris accord to seek an exit.

    Many of the country's European allies, including Spain, have expressed disappointment at the move.

    A small group of protestors from the climate organisation Extinction Rebellion dressed in hazard suits and rushed the lobby of the Cape Town event, smearing oil on the floor while singing, "planet Earth is burning down!"

    Winberg said US carbon dioxide emissions had fallen by 14 percent between 2005 and 2017 - which is far less than the decrease needed to halt global warming.

    He also cited the development of liquid natural gas and its potential to be converted into cleaner hydrogen. Winberg said carbon capture and storage technology and advances in coal-fired boilers were beneficial.

    The Trump administration in August proposed rescinding Obama-era limits on oil and gas industry emissions of methane, one of the main pollutants that scientists link to climate change.

    On Monday, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced it planned to ease Obama-era rules on toxic coal ash.

    Trump campaigned on a promise to rescind the US commitment to the Paris deal - a cut by over a quarter in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 from 2005 levels - arguing the restrictions would harm the economy and workers.

    Leaving the agreement will be a decision for the winner of the 2020 presidential election, however, as the earliest possible effective date that the US can withdraw from the pact will be November 4, 2020.

    In the meantime, Winberg said US energy companies and the fracking boom will continue to enjoy bipartisan support.

    "The shale revolution got started during the George W Bush administration, [and] got kicked off in a commercial way under the Obama administration," he said. "During the Trump administration, it's been embraced."

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency