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Are the goals of the Paris Accord slipping out of reach?

As the annual UN Climate Change Conference takes place in Poland, a new report declares that global carbon dioxide emissions are rising even faster, at levels that make the goals of the Paris Accord increasingly difficult to achieve. William Brangham speaks with David Victor, professor of international relations at University of California, San Diego, about what’s driving the ominous trend.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Representatives from nearly 200 nations are in Poland this week at a U.N. climate conference, trying to hammer out specific rules for cutting their countries' greenhouse gas emissions.

    They already faced the daunting task of meeting goals they agreed to back in 2015 as part of the Paris climate accord.

    But, as William Brangham reports, that mission got even tougher yesterday, with a new report that global emissions of carbon dioxide are in fact rising, reaching the highest levels on record.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    A new report by the Global Carbon Project says worldwide emissions grew by 1.6 percent last year, and are expected to rise another 2.7 percent this year. Carbon dioxide is the main gas that's driving climate change and the dangerous rise in global temperature.

    The Paris accord hoped to limit that warming to just 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but this recent report seems to make that goal increasingly hard to reach.

    Much of the increase in emissions is from growth in China and India. China is now the world's largest carbon emitter, followed by the U.S.

    This report is just the latest in a series of very recent stark warnings about climate change. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it this way: "We are in deep trouble. It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation."

    I'm joined now by David Victor. He's a professor of international relations at U.C.-San Diego, and author of "Global Warming Gridlock" about why we have failed to address this issue thus far.

    David Victor, thank you very much for being on the "NewsHour."

    We had seen from 2014, I believe, to 2016 that global emissions had flattened out. So this rise came as something of a surprise. Can you help us understand a little bit, what is driving this?

  • David Victor:

    Well, the main driver is economic growth.

    Countries are beginning to put together systems that will help control emissions. That's what the Paris agreement is about, the talks in Poland this week and next. But that takes a long time to come into being.

    And, meanwhile, economic growth and the original technologies that we're using for energy systems, they continue forward. And so I think people reacted to the couple of years of flat emissions, and then they were surprised when the processes continue as we have seen in the most recent reports.

  • William Brangham:

    It's obviously incredibly difficult. No leader wants to say, I want to put a stop on economic growth, especially in a country like India or in China.

    So, if emissions keep on this trajectory, doesn't that put the goal of the Paris accords at keeping warming under two degrees, just puts that in real jeopardy?

  • David Victor:

    Yes, it puts those goals in real jeopardy. And it's kind of easy to be very pessimistic about the overall process. We have been talking about the climate issue for a long time, and not really taking much action.

    I think the — underlying all that, there are some areas of good news. More countries are learning how to grow economically, deliver jobs, wealth to people with lower emissions. There are some states and cities that are taking the lead. And so those processes are unfolding slowly. But it's not like nothing — nothing's happening here.

    But, meanwhile, the overall global picture certainly is a grim one.

  • William Brangham:

    You wrote a piece in "Nature" that accompanied this most recent report.

    And you were arguing that the recent stark warnings have somewhat even underplayed the fact that global warming is, in fact, accelerating.

  • David Victor:

    Yes, we were concerned, a team of us were concerned that the U.N. had been warning that we'd pass the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels around 2040, and that seemed like a long time off, still a problem.

    And we took a close look at the data. And what we're seeing in the data is actually an acceleration in warming. And that suggests that warning of 2040 or so might actually happen in 2030, maybe earlier.

    And so we have written that article in part to show that the problem is even more serious than the people thought, and also to underscore that there's actually a lot of things that can be done, as we start to worry about rapid warming.

    For example, there are many pollutants that cause global warming that are extremely potent, and we have a lot of technological opportunities for controlling them right now. And if we double down on those, for example, soot and methane, that we actually could slow down the rate of warming quite appreciably.

  • William Brangham:

    Even with the political will to do these things, these are hard policies to enact.

    I mean, we just saw in France recently that trying to enact a gasoline tax, which in essence is a carbon tax, and we had riots in the streets. So even when political will is there, this is not an easy thing to do.

  • David Victor:

    Oh, this is a hard problem. This is one of the hardest problems the world has confronted collectively.

    It's a problem where the technologies needed to get to essentially zero emissions are not yet available. The ones that exist are expensive, but the costs — some of the costs are coming down.

    And so you have got high costs that are visible today for benefits that still seem kind of abstract to most people, and are mostly in the future and mostly for the world as a whole. And so it's not surprising that a problem structured like that has been a really hard problem to tackle.

  • William Brangham:

    So, how do we increase that sense of urgency? I think — you talk about something like 2 degrees Celsius. It's somewhat abstract to people.

    Can you just briefly give us a sense, what does 2 degrees of warming really mean for the planet?

  • David Victor:

    Well, I think one of the difficulties here is that the scientific literature makes it very clear that there isn't a single threshold. There isn't some mark beyond which everything comes unglued.

    What happens is that, as the planet warms, the probability of extreme events goes up, the probability of things like the extreme wildfires we have just seen in California, extreme storms, that goes up.

    And I think what's interesting in the scientific community is that we're paying much more attention to developing fine-grain projections for what a warmer world means for the risk of wildfire, for the risk of coastal inundation, for the risks to farmers.

    And less noticed than the U.N. report, but one that came out about the same time, is a big new assessment in the United States of those impacts. And so you're starting to see more and more people grappling with, what does this mean for me?

    And I think that, as that happens, the political mobilization around the climate problem is going to get stronger.

  • William Brangham:

    OK.

  • David Victor:

    It doesn't mean it's still an easy problem to solve.

  • William Brangham:

    David Victor, thank you very much.

  • David Victor:

    Thank you.

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