Opinion

OPINION | ART HOBSON: In nations’ battle against climate warming, there’s a global credibility gap

Climate goals nice, but actual policies aren’t strong enough

Humankind has finally achieved the first goal required to prevent disastrous global warming: Civilized people finally recognize this as a real threat caused by fossil fuels and deforestation. Just as the cigarette industry knew the danger of their products but lied about it, the fossil fuel industry knew the dangers of global warming by 1980 and devoted the next four decades to denying it.

Because it's an inherently international problem, it's appropriate that the United Nations has played a leading role in scientifically understanding it and finding real-world solutions. As the U.N.'s heroic Secretary-General Antonio Guterres knows, this is probably the most difficult problem humankind has ever faced, more difficult and more consequential than the world wars.

Civilization faced a similar problem, atmospheric ozone depletion, during the 1980s. The opposition was similar. It was labeled a hoax. Industry said banning the products that destroyed ozone would sink the economy. The world got together, enacted a rational solution, and the atmosphere is now recovering.

As Guterres put it, "The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions. It's fossil fuels -- period. The world must phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way -- moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground. Fossil fuel industry transition plans must be transformation plans that chart a company's move to clean energy and away from a product incompatible with human survival."

Global warming is 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer (for Fahrenheit, multiply by 1.8) today, compared to a baseline period of 1850 to 1900. The U.N.'s 2016 Paris Agreement seeks to prevent warming beyond 2 degrees. Its goals also include pursuing efforts to go further, holding warming to 1.5 degrees, and reducing greenhouse emissions to "net zero."

But it's easier to adopt goals than to achieve them. When climate analysts look at the 193 nations' likely future policies rather than their promises, they find a mixed bag that suggests global warming will be 2.5 to 3.0 degrees in 2100 and continue to increase after that. The promised goals spell sustainable survival while the likely outcomes spell disaster.

A study published on June 9 in the journal Science looked at this credibility gap across the many nations signing the Paris Agreement. The study evaluated whether each nation has legally binding targets, whether it has a credible implementation plan, and the nation's present policies.

The study presents five plausible scenarios for future greenhouse emissions. All scenarios assume that nations will at least continue their present emission reduction policies. Scenario (A) assumes that all nations will do nothing more than this minimal effort. (B) assumes that the higher-confidence net-zero targets are actually met. (C) assumes both higher-confidence and medium-confidence net-zero targets are met. (D) assumes all (including low-confidence) net-zero targets are met. (E) assumes all net-zero targets plus each nation's individually announced "national" emission goals (beyond what they have promised in international agreements) are met.

As you might expect, case A leads to utter disaster. Current policies, if not upgraded, would produce 2.6 degrees of global warming (4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Annual emissions would remain approximately unchanged throughout this century. Surprisingly, case B isn't much better: 2.4 degrees. Cases C and D lead to about 2 degrees of warming by 2100.

Case E leads to 1.7 degrees of warming by 2100. This suggests that the Paris Agreement's efforts to hold the long-term increase to 1.5 degrees is nearly achievable, provided that all promises are fulfilled.

There are uncertainties in all these projections, but it's been my experience during 45 years of following this issue that such international scientific projections of global warming are unbiased, well-informed and surprisingly accurate.

It's obviously imperative that the lower-confidence promises under the Paris Agreement be fulfilled. Many nations, including the EU, USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Chile, Japan and Nigeria, have enacted their Paris promises into law, but many others have not.

In a related development, the World Resource Institute reports that the world lost 10 million acres of primary rain forest in 2022, a 10% increase from 2021. Last year's destruction caused 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual emissions of India, a nation of 1.4 billion. Brazil accounted for 40% of the loss.

For several decades, civilization has faced two existential threats: nuclear war, and global warming. At 88, I dearly hope that I can leave a more secure outlook to my grandchildren.

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One other thing: There will be a demonstration promoting peace in Ukraine from 11 a.m. to noon on the last Saturday of every month in Fayetteville, at the intersection of Dickson Street and North College Avenue. Join us.