The US President Donald Trump is not the only world leader abandoning the Paris Agreement. China, Canada, Russia, and even the EU are neglecting it too. Among the world’s biggest economies it is only India, that has the political ambitions and frameworks necessary to stay within the 2°C limit by the end of this century.

This week, as all the world leaders meet at the COP24 conference in Katowice in Poland, we mark the three year anniversary of the Paris Agreement – a global pledge to limit CO2 emissions signed by 193 countries. But this week also marks the “make it or break it” for the Paris Agreement and for UN COP negotiations.
Because, when you look at the state of the Paris Agreement, the withdrawal of the US President Donald Trump is not the only blow to the fragile deal. Even though he is currently the only one to have requested an official withdrawal, there are numerous other countries moving in the exact same direction as the US. Looking at the world’s largest economies it is only India that has the political framework and ambitions to keep the temperature increase below 2 degrees at the end of this century. This is the clear cut message from the most recent numbers by The Climate Action Tracker Rating. The Climate Action Tracker tracks 32 countries, that is the total warming of the aggregate effect of the Paris Agreement commitments compared to the 32 countries’ real-world policy.

Figure 1. Still heading for a 3°C degree temperature increase

24 countries are still aiming for +3°C increase, among these big emitters like Argentina, Canada, China, Japan, Russia, USA.

The tracker also reveals that there is not a single country in the whole world who are on track to remain within the 1.5°C goal. The countries closest to that goal are the poorest, least industrialized countries with the lowest levels of CO2 emissions. In order to really make it count – and indeed to get anywhere near the controlled global temperature increase of 2°C – we still need to get the bigger carbon emitting countries on track.

The critical state of the Paris Agreement was the central message when UN Secretary-General António Guterres made his opening remarks of the COP24 the 3rd of December. He issued a clear warning: “This meeting is the most important gathering on climate change since the Paris Agreement was signed. It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation. Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” he said.

But when looking at the statements and discussions from the first days of COP24, it does not seem that his message is gaining grounds. Quite the contrary. No doubt that the Paris Agreement is challenged right now, and we could be facing a “cop-out” for the 24 years of COP negotiations. If this happens, our global responsibility towards the climate will be eroded – leaving it up to everyone and no one to fight climate change.

Crossing the red line

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”

This statement is a key extract from the Paris Agreement, and it marks the red line of climate change: the urgent need to stay below 2°C global temperature increase to keep climate change under control.

Looking at the state of the Agreement, numerous countries are already crossing that line. Big economies such as the US, China, Japan, Argentina, Canada and Russia are all heading towards a +3°C temperature increase.

Not even the EU28, who are leading the development of renewable energy and climate policies, is anywhere near being on track. The region has been very forward speaking about the need for the Paris Agreement and the joint global commitment on cutting CO2 emissions and has been very critical of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement. Nevertheless, the EU28 has failed to establish a policy framework that will prevent temperature increases above 2°C.

China is not doing enough

In 2016, China announced its 13th Five-Year Plan for 2016-2020 and made green growth a main focus area, promising cuts in use of coal, new green policies and  green ambitions. The global community applauded the plan with high hopes of China becoming a frontrunner in sustainable growth.

But looking at the state of China’s green ambitions today, there is not much left to celebrate. The Chinese Communist Party has yet to set out the necessary political framework to live up to the 1.5-2°C global agreement. For the second year running, coal use rose again. As of today their policies are placing China in the group of countries whose ambitions are leading to CO2-emissions at a level of 3-4°C or more – and the country is therefore still far from being a global green frontrunner.

The great challenge of a bottom-up architecture

The Paris Agreement is based on a bottom-up architecture that leaves it up to each of the 193 countries to come up with a political plan and framework for reducing national CO2 emissions – the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But the global political state of climate change and the many new reports warning us that the window for limiting global warming is rapidly closing raise the question whether or not the bottom up approach is still – or has ever been –  the right way to try to tackle the climate change challenge.

The bottom-up approach allows every country to take on its own interpretation of what constitutes a fair effort in terms of national ambitions for CO2 emissions reductions. This has created a situation where, despite being an ostensibly ‘global’ agreement, is still very much “every country for itself” – which up until today has not paved the way for the needed joint global climate change actions. And you could question, looking at 24 years of COP meetings, if this is in fact something that we can expect the UN to be able to deliver a solution to.

The problem is that there are no alternatives. So when the countries fail to meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement, and if COP negotiations fail, we will move even further away from a global political climate change leadership – a leadership that is urgently needed if human life on this planet is to continue in centuries to come.