The use of sun and wind energy eventually allows the Netherlands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Photo: Shutterstock
In the Climate Agreements, countries stated their intention to do everything they can to stop global warming. But what are those promises leading to in practice? Wageningen professor Niklas Höhne is the man behind the Climate Tracker, which shows whether governments are doing what they said they would do for the climate. “Some countries don’t have any plans at all for implementing the measures. This is very worrying.”
According to the Paris Climate Agreement (2015), the average rise in global temperatures needs to be kept well below two degrees Celsius. The 190 countries that signed the agreement have undertaken to do their best to restrict the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, net emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced to zero by 2050. In climate negotiations such as the summits in Paris and Glasgow, countries present their plans for reducing emissions of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases. They intend to combat deforestation, reduce methane emissions or stop using coal. It sounds as if a lot is going to be done over the next while to save the climate (and ourselves). But how do we know whether all these activities are actually happening and whether they will be enough?
The NewClimate Institute in Berlin is researching this in partnership with Climate Analytics (Berlin) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. This consortium examines all the efforts and intentions of the various countries and assesses whether they are doing enough to make good on the international agreements in Paris and Glasgow. Professor Niklas Höhne — who has a chair in the Environmental Sciences Group in Wageningen and is associated with the Wageningen Institute for Environmental and Climate Research (WIMEK) — founded the NewClimate Institute and took the initiative for the consortium.
The Climate Action Tracker shows the status of countries on 10 February 2022, revealing whether the proposed plans meet climate action goals. Illustration: CAT
Höhne explains that there are many complicating factors in determining whether a country is on course to fulfil its promises. “Different methods are used to quantify the emissions. It is also often unclear how emissions will change due to population growth, an ageing population profile or increasing prosperity. Nor is it always clear exactly what the proposals involve. In short, we encounter numerous sources of uncertainty in the figures. We then use those figures in a climate model that has its own uncertainties. But even without clear-cut figures, we can still conclude that we are a long way off achieving the targets set out in Paris. If we don’t do anything, we will have global warming of an estimated 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Some of the participating countries don’t have any plans at all for implementing measures before 2030. This is very worrying.”
The results of the study can be found on the website Climate Action Tracker. This shows for each country whether its plans are sufficient to achieve the climate goals. Anyone looking at the tracker will soon see that only a few countries are reasonably on course: Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Gambia and the United Kingdom. Major emissions producers such as Russia and the United States are doing abysmally. Höhne thinks the Climate Action Tracker can help people and organisations to push ‘their’ governments to do better. “There is always the question of whether companies and governments are genuinely doing a good job or are merely ‘greenwashing’. Companies like to project a green image: ‘if you fly with our airline you will be offsetting the CO₂ emissions from your flight.’ They make a serious effort to cultivate that image but it is almost impossible for consumers to check whether they in fact do what they say they do. The same applies to governments. We are working hard to check whether countries are living up to their stated goals. Voters and NGOs can use the information we make available in the Climate Action Tracker to hold governments to account for their actions. Or lack of action.”
If we don’t do anything, we will already have global warming of 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2030
More action is essential to be able to remain within the worldwide average temperature increase of 2 degrees. Photo: Shutterstock
The next stage is to advise governments on the concrete measures they could take, the steps they could make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible. The best approach differs from one country to the next. Höhne: “For the Netherlands, it is incredibly important to focus on solar power and wind energy. That will make it possible to eventually reduce net emissions to zero. But you still need a master plan for the energy transition, in other words a starting point, a situation you are aiming for and a roadmap showing how to get there. You need to design a completely new system. If you go for solar power and wind energy, you also need a storage system. There are not many countries with such a master plan. The exceptions are the United Kingdom and Costa Rica, which have long-term plans that they adjust every five years. We have developed a format for such a plan, including advice on how to flesh it out in partnership with stakeholders.”
Sceptics sometimes argue that it is pointless taking measures because there are so many uncertainties in the climate models. Höhne: “The past teaches us a different lesson. In the 1990s, we thought that if we did nothing to stop greenhouse gas emissions we would see global warming of three to four degrees centigrade by the end of the 21st century. Now we have a scenario that shows that after all the measures implemented since then, global warming will stop at around 2.7 degrees. We are already at 1.2 degrees and even that is destabilising the climate. So 2.7 degrees is better than before but it is still disastrous.” The conclusion is that not enough is being done. Even so, Höhne believes we are further than we were 20 or 30 years ago. “I’ve been doing climate research for 20 years now. In the early days, it wasn’t really taken seriously. Economic growth and fossil fuels always took priority. But companies are gradually beginning to realise that doing nothing is no longer an option. They are under enormous pressure from consumers and governments, which wasn’t the case in the past. Now countries are suddenly declaring that they want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. Germany was among the first to announce this, soon to be followed by other European countries. Then came the United States and now even China is saying it plans to be climate-neutral by 2060. That’s a new and positive development. These goals still need to be supported by real actions, but it still shows we are heading in the right direction.”
Read more about the Climate Action Tracker on the website
Read more about the research of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK)