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Emissions must peak worldwide by 2020, says new report

Dramatic action is required—yet 27 cities are proving it’s possible

Jovani Quintano and Carlos Gomez walk through a flooded North Carolina neighborhood after Hurricane Florence, which produced 50 percent more rainfall due to climate change.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Widespread, sustained disasters like drought, wildfire, and flooding will affect virtually every human on the planet within their lifetimes, according to a dire new assessment of the global impacts of climate change.

Within a few dozen years, many of the world’s most vulnerable communities will be forced to adjust to new realities of poverty, famine, and social unrest—decades earlier than previous timelines have predicted.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, which was published ahead of a United Nations meeting in Incheon, South Korea, says that previous efforts to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will not be enough to mitigate serious impacts. The report directs policymakers to aim for a new target of 1.5 degrees—which would reduce the number of people “susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.”

The report calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of the world economy, which its 132 authors agree is scientifically possible—but, for the U.S. particularly, politically unlikely.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors,” says the report.

The deadline to avert the worst effects of the crisis is coming up soon. Emissions worldwide will need to peak by 2020, meaning dramatic action needs to be taken within 15 short months.

Yet while the challenge sounds insurmountable, it’s not impossible—in 27 cities, including nine in the U.S., emissions have already peaked.

Homes destroyed by the Carr Fire in Redding, California, in 2018. Scientists agree that climate change is lengthening the wildfire season, increasing the chances for more intense fires.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The current goal to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius was set at a United Nations climate summit in 2015. Nearly 200 countries signed on to what was known as the Paris agreement, from which the U.S. later infamously withdrew. But over two years later, many countries which signed the agreement are already missing their targets.

But even a half-degree’s difference of warming will wreak havoc on cities, the report notes, by exposing humans to deadlier extreme heat—which is exacerbated in urban areas—and putting an additional 10 million people who live along urban coastlines at risk.

However, at the same 2015 summit, mayors from 96 cities around the world signed a separate agreement through a coalition known as C40 Cities to limit warming to 1.5 degrees—and many are on track to achieve those goals.

“Since December 2015 it has been a condition of membership of C40 that by the end of 2020 each of our 96 cities will have published and be delivering a detailed plan for how they will stay within a carbon budget consistent with keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees,” wrote Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities, in a statement.

In fact, according to an announcement by C40 at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit, emissions in 27 of those cities have already peaked, including the U.S. cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

In the U.S., despite the embrace of coal by the Trump administration, most of the country is swiftly embracing renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

The real problem now is transportation, which is the fastest-growing source of emissions in the country.

According to the report, cities must move quickly to eliminate emissions through land-use and transportation policies. For most U.S. cities, that would mean limiting private vehicles, which no U.S. city has done yet. Even New York City, which is the most dense, transit-rich metropolitan area in the country, still sees 23 percent of its emissions come from cars and trucks. Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan remains the only U.S. mayor planning for congestion pricing, which would restrict the number of cars in its city center.

Transportation is now the largest source of emissions in the U.S., yet cities continue to invest in car-centric infrastructure.
Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

Since the possibility of global emissions peaking by 2020 is such an ambitious goal, policymakers must also prepare for the reality that simply reducing emissions will likely not be enough. Nature4Climate, another global climate coalition, argues that focusing on nature-based solutions, like forest expansions and agricultural reforms, can address up to one-third of the emissions reductions needed—about the same as eliminating the use of oil globally.

“Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are crucial if we want to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change on economies, societies and life,” said Dr. Cristiana Paşca-Palmer, the assistant secretary general of the United Nations. “However, the 1.5-degree Celsius target will not be reached based on emissions reduction alone. It is imperative that nature be part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

That’s why, in addition to the efforts of C40 and other groups, 45 cities worldwide have joined the initiative Cities4Forests, which was announced at last month’s climate summit. Mayors from all 45 cities have pledged to make major investments in “inner, nearby, and faraway forests” which can cool cities, clean air, and—perhaps most critically—sequester carbon, essentially offsetting the emissions that cities will have a harder time eliminating immediately.

In addition, nature-based solutions can address the loss of biodiversity due to the number of species that will be eradicated by an increase in global temperatures, including the almost-certain destruction of most of the world’s coral reefs.

The idea of eliminating emissions while nurturing the carbon-capturing natural environment will prove critical to avoid the future outlined in the report. C40 has published case studies showing how seven cities are carving out more rigorous pathways to achieve carbon-neutrality—meaning not only committing to clean energy, but also offsetting carbon pollution generated across all industries.

Last month, California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order for the state—the world’s fifth-largest economy—to become carbon-neutral by 2045, making it the largest governmental body in the world to set such an ambitious goal.

Several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, have developed plans to become carbon neutral by 2050, but it’s now clear these proposals will not be enough. In recent years, Copenhagen upped its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. This goal, which once felt audacious in its optimism, is now what must be achieved by every city on the planet.