Energy Policy

But is it enough?


The Paris Agreement represents a landmark achievement in international policy. I remember watching John Kerry signing the Agreement, his granddaughter in his lap, and getting goosebumps. I guess I never really thought the world would come together and agree on anything to address climate change. I felt (and continue to feel) so full of hope and excitement. Think about it - we identify this existential threat and figure out a way to address it before it's too late. This is a story only Hollywood could tell, right?

Secretary of State, John Kerry signs the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter on his lap
Credit: Amanda Voisard. Secretary-General welcomes US return to Paris Agreement on Climate Change. UN News. January 20, 2021

Well, we don't know yet. No one of us has seen the entire script just yet. But here's what we do know. The Paris Agreement isn't enough to get us to where we need to be. Each year, the United Nations puts out what's called the Emissions Gap Report. This report gives a detailed look at the delta between where our emissions are, where they'd be heading with no policy intervention, and where we expect them to be with successful implementation of existing measures. Let's take a look.

UNEP 2022 Emissions Gap
Credit: United Nations Environment Programme (2022). Emissions Gap Report 2022. UN Environment Programme. October 27, 2022

The gap looks pretty daunting, doesn't it? We know that we want to keep warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial temperatures). We've already used up about a degree of that. We also know that the closer to 1.5 degrees we can contain that warming, the better off we are in terms of minimizing detrimental impacts. But as you can see, the delta is...well, it's big.

  • unconditional NDC (nationally determined contributions) - these are the voluntary actions that countries have committed to that are totally implementable without external support
  • conditional NDC (nationally determined contributions) - these go farther than the unconditional NDCs, but require some sort of external financial support (perhaps from the 'high ambition' bloc of countries) or are contingent on the climate-related policies other countries choose to implement.

Take note - that bigger zoom of it is just through 2030.  As we go farther out to 2050 and 2100, what happens is that the delta gets bigger. The longer we wait to take action, the more aggressive the action needs to be to achieve ever increasingly steep reductions.

But we can't let this graph discourage us from action. We don't have the luxury to throw up our hands and say nothing can be done. We have the tools, technology, and know-how to dig ourselves out of this emissions gap. The question really is - do we have the political will?