Since the industrial revolution, technology has boosted the development of our societies in ways we never seen before. We tackled some of the biggest challenges of our era: the production of food, the eradication of diseases, and the expansion of transport and communication systems. But this form of development has come at a cost and has become, perhaps, the greatest threat of our time.
The combustion of fossil like petrol, coal or gas, that fueled the production, has released millions of tons of carbon gases to the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions are in part reabsorbed by the oceans and forests. But their drastic increase over the past 50 years, combined with the deforestation from unsustainable agriculture, has caused a global warming effect: the average Earth temperature is 1°C warmer than it was before the industrial revolution.
This increase might not seem much, but we have already seen its dramatic effects. Glaciers are melting, making the sea levels raise, coral reefs and marine biodiversity are disappearing as a result of the oceans warming up, fierce climate events occurring more and more frequently are putting food security at risk and destroying people’s houses, forcing them to flee.
Experts have raised the alarm. If the global warming trend continues, our planet could be 3–5C warmer than pre-industrial levels by 2100. In these conditions, sustaining life in Earth would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. To avoid this threatening scenario, 195 countries in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement. The agreement gives clear action steps to reduce carbon emissions, mitigate the risks of climate change and maintain global temperature well below 2C. Scientists consider safe limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
Four years after the agreement, very few countries are still in the race to limit global warming to a safe temperature. But many are taking the lead in setting bold goals to curb climate change.
Bhutan’s policies are classified as “compatible” with a world below 2°C, and it has already achieved carbon neutrality. Being a small and less developed country, Bhutan was able to achieve zero CO2 emissionsthanks to the country’s reforestation programme.
The forests absorb in its entirety the relatively low amounts of gases emitted by the vehicles and industries. In face of the challenges posed by the country’s economic growth, the government commits to maintaining this neutrality.
The next host to the UN Conference of the Parties (COP) accounts for less than one percent of global carbon emissions, yet it is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change due to its geography and climate. The country has been willing to take climate action with the hope that they would set an example that more developed countries can follow.
Santiago de Chile, has now a total of 200 electric buses and, the second largest fleet in the developing world after China. The government said that it intends to have 80 percent of electric public transport by 2022. In June 2019, Chile revealed the development of a climate action plan that aims to shut all 28 coal power plants by 2040, and target carbon neutrality by 2050. Given the country’s heavy dependency on a resource that accounts for one third of greenhouse emissions, this is seen as an incredibly ambitious plan. The government announced that eight coal-fired power plants will be closed in the next five years.
Costa Rica has been an exemplary country when it comes to environmental protection. It has included the right to a healthy environment for its citizens in its constitution. One fourth of its territory is protected and it’s the only tropical country to have reduced deforestation.
This year, the Costa Rican government launched a renewed plan to eliminate fossil fuels by 2050. Some initiatives are: having 25 percent of electric private cars and 70 percent of electric public transport by 2035 and achieving 100 percent zero emission vehicles by 2050.
While these countries are setting a great example for other countries to follow, more developed countries need to play their role. The Paris Agreement holds richer countries accountable for their emissions reduction and their support to poorer countries.
For many years now, Norway has been setting the pace towards carbon neutrality. Their aim is to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Unlike Chile, Norway does not need to close any power stations because most of its electricity is renewable. In 2017 almost 96 percent of electricity was generated by hydro power plants and around two percent from wind farms. The country has transitioned to clean energy thanks to the carbon tax, which allowed them to fund alternative sources.
Norway’s main contribution comes from transport and oil drilling. Yet, it is leading in the share of electric cars: in 2018 almost every second new car sold in Norway was electric. However, the overall figure is still at 7.9 percent of all cars. To neutralize the CO2 emissions generated by transport, the Nordic country is relying on trees. It is increasing its forest size and contributing to programmes to reduce deforestation in other regions.
Morocco is one of only two countries that Climate Action Tracker gives the highest ‘1.5C Paris Agreement-compatible’ rating.
But although the North African country is on track to keep global warming at 1.5C, it wants to go even further — by stopping greenhouse gas emission growth. It’s going to need increased international funds to go ahead with its ambitious plans to increase production of renewable energy. And although the country is still planning to expand coal-fired plants, achieving the Paris Agreement requires phasing out coal generation by 2050 at the latest.
Many countries still have a lot to do. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Ukraine and USA need to strengthen their efforts to keep the world even under 4°C.
UNDP is providing long term support to countries to pursue a zero-carbon sustainable development, with a portfolio spanning 280 projects and programmes over 110 countries. Our approaches include access to clean and affordable energy, carbon finance, sustainable transport and infrastructure, climate friendly alternative technologies and sustainable forestry. However, concrete policies at the national level are still necessary to achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement.
In anticipation of the UN summit on September 23rd in New York, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has invited every head of state to present concrete proposals to accelerate de-carbonization. He has urged countries to step up climate action to achieve a sustainable world, leaving no one behind.
Research and text by Daniela Peris, UNDP New York. Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York