This is what roughly one degree of global temperature rise–the current state of the climate–looked like in 2017: Wildfires torched Southern California after fire season should have ended. Earlier in the year, another large fire started in Greenland, a country mostly covered in ice. In the Alps, where glaciers and permafrost are melting, landslides sent rivers of sludge into villages. Floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate in China and thousands more in Bangladesh. In Ethiopia, drought and flooding left millions of people hungry. In Australia, hundreds of miles of coral died in the Great Barrier Reef.
That’s just a piece of the impact of one degree of warming. By 2100, if emissions continue on their current trajectory, the global average temperature may go up five degrees. To limit warming to two degrees, the main goal set in the Paris agreement on climate, experts say that emissions will have to peak and begin to sharply decline in 2020. What happens in 2018 will be key to whether that’s on track to happen.
The End Of Coal
“If you think about the need to bend global emissions by 2020, it really boils down to coal–we have a coal pipeline of coal-fired power stations under development, planned, all the way to under construction, which is way out of whack with the Paris agreement,” says Andrew Higham, chief executive of Mission 2020, an international campaign launched by former UN climate head Christiana Figueres. By 2020, the group argues, no new coal power plants can be built, and any existing coal power plants will have to be in the process of retirement. Renewables will have to make up at least 30% of the world energy supply.
That transition is underway. Nineteen countries, including the U.K. and Canada, have pledged to phase out coal power plants. Economics, more than policy, drove one in seven coal plants around the world to fully or partially phase out coal between 2010 and 2017.
China and India, once huge consumers of coal, are progressing away from the fuel. But countries like Indonesia and Vietnam are still planning new coal power plants. “The amount of new builds has come down dramatically, partly to do with just the fact that renewables are out-competing coal, partly because of government policy,” says Higham. “But we still see part of a hotspot in Southeast Asia. What happens in Southeast Asia on energy policy next year is really very important. You can go one way or another, and that’s really going to have a very significant bearing on the emissions profile globally.”
The Growth Of Electric Vehicles
Compared to renewable energy, electric vehicles are a smaller piece of their respective market. Mission2020 argues that EVs will need to make up 15%-20% of new car sales globally by 2020; they only make up around 1% today. It’s a stretch, but Higham points out that past predictions of electric vehicle growth have dramatically underestimated what would happen, and change could happen quickly and exponentially.
For the first time, in 2017, car manufacturers like Volvo, Volkswagen, and Mercedes made major commitments to shift their production to building electric cars. Norway plans to ban the sale of new gas or diesel cars by 2025, and India, France, and other countries will follow, along with California. The growth of autonomous tech, some experts argue, will naturally favor electric cars as well. “What it really means is totally disrupting the business models of the existing car industry,” says Higham.
He points out that transportation has changed as quickly in the past, referencing two photos of 5th Avenue in Manhattan in the early 1900s: In one picture, the streets are filled with horses and carts. Roughly a decade later, they’ve been completely replaced by cars. “These kinds of things happen really, really quickly,” he says. “We often think that these types of changes happen incrementally, in a linear kind of way, but that’s not actually how things happen. It feels like that but then all of the sudden we get to this kind of tipping point, and everyone races for the new technology.”
What’s Next For The Paris Agreement?
When Trump announced his plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the groundbreaking deal in which 196 countries agreed to make commitments to limit global warming, it wasn’t clear how the rest of the world would react. But the international community responded by voicing even more support for the agreement, and the only two countries that held out when the accord was first created in 2016, Syria and Nicaragua, finally joined (leaving the U.S. as the lone holdout).
“This past year has been rocky–who’s in, who’s not in, in terms of the international regime,” says David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “I think we saw that we came through that.” Now, the world needs to dig into the details. Over 2018, countries will assess their progress on climate action, where gaps are, and what needs to happen, through a process called the Talanoa dialogue. They’ll have to raise their level of ambition: the current pledges that countries have made under the Paris agreement don’t yet go far enough to keep global warming under two degrees.
Countries also have to talk through the mechanics of how the Paris agreement should be implemented–for example, how countries will transparently report on their progress. “All of these key questions are really important to making Paris come to life and giving confidence and a sense of trust that countries are ready to move forward into the next phase,” Waskow says.
Cities Need To Prove They’re The Solution They Claim They Are
Trump’s Paris announcement inspired a swift reaction from states, cities, businesses, and universities which pledged to strengthen their own climate action. “We’re getting zero leadership from the Trump administration, and in fact, he’s leading the assault on most of the parts of the government that help us reduce emissions. But the really incredible silver lining is that our markets are doing it anyway, and states are rallying further than we ever thought they would,” says Liz Perera, climate policy director at the Sierra Club.
“I think one of the first things that needs to happen is that the 2,500-plus cities, states, businesses and others [that made commitments] need to turn their commitment to the Paris agreement into real-world action,” says Kristin Igusky, an associate in the global climate program at the World Resources Institute and one of the authors of the America’s Pledge report, which studied what non-federal actors are doing in terms of climate. “The outpouring of support is really encouraging and inspiring . . . but those commitments alone won’t reduce emissions.”
Many businesses, for example, have pledged to cut emissions by a certain percentage, but haven’t yet made detailed plans for accomplishing that goal. The same goes for cities and states. “There’s lots of opportunities there, but there’s always a risk that it’s all words, in a sense,” says Glen Peters, research director at Norway’s Center for International Climate Research. “It’s easy to make pledges–particularly in this environment, it’s a way to get some easy points by saying something on climate, but at the end of the day, you have to actually do something on climate.”
Those that are already taking concrete action will also have to make plans to do more. “Most states have renewable and energy efficiency targets, so then maybe they have the ability to then sort of look at some of the harder areas, like industry and methane and HFC emission sources,” says Igusky. “And at the same time, these actors can also work to strengthen action that’s already on the books.”
The Future Is Murky
Despite progress in some areas, huge challenges remain. While many corporations have embraced climate action–Walmart, as one example, is cutting its own emissions 18% by 2025, and working with suppliers to reduce emissions by another billion tons–others, such as those in the cement, steel, and fossil fuel industries, have made little progress. Forests, which are critical for absorbing emissions, are being clear-cut and burning down. Technologies that can cut carbon (or begin to suck it from the air) need to be implemented on a daunting scale; politically, climate is still not a priority for most people. After a few years of stable emissions, despite economic growth, global emissions shot up in 2017. An enormous amount of climate progress–or at least mitigation of worse results–also hinge on the midterm elections in the U.S., which could shift power in Congress to the more climate-friendly party.
Still, optimism is probably necessary to have any chance of success. “You could never achieve those goals if you are pessimistic . . . I remain optimistic because that’s a theory of change that works,” says Higham. “That’s what people respond to. The disintegration that we see in social life around the world, which is very alarming, fundamentally is about inequality, dispossession, and disenfranchisement from the future–not having hope, not being able to see a positive future. I really believe that the only way through any challenge–whether it be through the climate challenge or these major social disruptions– is through having a positive outlook on life and being optimistic about what we can achieve together.”