Can pledges to cut emissions save the world from climate change?

Many nations are pledging to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but these plans may not be enough.

Thibault Camus/AP
People walk on the Champs Elysees during the 'day without cars,' in Paris, France, Sunday. Pretty but noisy Paris, its gracious Old World buildings blackened by exhaust fumes, is going car-less for a day. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo presided over Sunday's 'day without cars,' two months before the city hosts the global summit on climate change.

Greenhouse gases may be the culprit in the climate change dilemma, but will countries’ pledges to curb emissions solve the problem?

The pledges have been picking up, with more nations adding their commitments to the list leading up to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris later this year. But researchers say global temperatures are still predicted to rise by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

That rise may seem small, but could cause significant challenges including flooding, decreased agricultural production, and extinction. 

This grim prediction arises from two recent studies examining the impact of these emissions pledges. Both analyses predict that global warming will trump the international goal of slowing warming to just 4 degrees.

Even if all the countries pledging meet their targets, temperatures might still rise 6.3 degrees, according to Climate Interactive, a Washington-based climate research group. This temperature rise begins with pre-industrial times and the world has already experienced a 1.6 degree rise due to industrial emissions.

According to these numbers, government efforts could reduce global warming by 1.8 degrees, but that still significantly exceeds targets.

Climate Action Tracker, a European research group, has a more conservative estimate: a rise of 5.4 degrees. Scientists attribute the difference to vague predictions for what will happen when the current government pledges expire in 2030.

Despite the bleak picture of the future these analyses paint, there could be hope.

"Much of the underlying motivation for any emissions reduction agenda is that first steps lead to second steps, which lead to third steps. It is probably the case that first steps won't solve the problem, but they start the journey," Chris Field, a candidate to become the next chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Associated Press.

Many of the challenges arise from politics. 

If global emissions are to be curbed sufficiently to keep the rise below 4 degrees, just 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide or less can be released into the atmosphere worldwide. That means countries must work together to limit the burning of oil, coal, and gas, which releases the greenhouse gas.

But all nations cannot always agree on how to divide the so-called “carbon budget.”

"When every country's definition of fair and ambitious uses different metrics you won't easily get to a situation where you divide the carbon budget," Kelly Levin, of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, told AP.

India, for example, asked the rest of the world to let them emit a larger percentage to help the developing country. "We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to accommodate us," Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told AP last week. "It is our right as a nation. It's our right as people of India, and we want that carbon space." India is currently a top polluter.

But many nations that do emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide have pledged to curb those emissions. Earlier this year the Group of Seven, the wealthy nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the United States, announced plans to dramatically curb emissions. The world’s top emitter, China, also joined the fray.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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