RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As we've been hearing this morning, world leaders are meeting in New York today. They are holding a special United Nations climate change summit. 2020 is the deadline for countries to make bigger, bolder promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But many of the world's biggest economies are struggling to keep up with their previous promises. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has this carbon report card.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Let's start with a couple basic climate science facts that world leaders are staring down today. Fact No. 1 - the average temperature on our planet has already increased about 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. Kelly Levin studies global emissions at the World Resources Institute think tank.
KELLY LEVIN: You've seen the Arctic hitting record highs and a scorching summer in Europe and the United States, leaving hundreds dead, and July was the warmest month on record ever, globally. And this is just with 1 degree Celsius of warming.
HERSHER: Storms are getting more frequent and severe, sea levels are rising, and heat waves and droughts are getting longer, which brings us to fact No. 2 - if the Earth gets 1 1/2 degrees Celsius hotter, all of those things get significantly worse. Many animals will go extinct. Many people will be forced to move, which is why leaders from nearly 200 nations are meeting in New York because - fact No. 3 - right now the world is on track for about 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century. So yeah, it's not good. Angel Hsu is a researcher at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. I spoke to her via Skype.
ANGEL HSU: Unfortunately, national governments are really falling behind when it comes to delivering the ambition and the emissions cuts that we really need to avoid dangerous climate change.
HERSHER: National governments including the U.S., the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world behind China. The U.S. has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2025. The good news - overall carbon emissions have gone down in the last decade, mostly because companies stopped burning so much coal. But under the Trump administration, that trend has slowed.
HSU: What ended up happening in 2018 was a spike in emissions from the United States, and that also occurred in China as well. So that's what's really worrisome.
HERSHER: But Hsu says there's a kind of silver lining. The Chinese government has been investing a lot in renewable energy, like solar and hydropower and electric public transit, and appears to be planning more. And because it's not a democracy, the leaders who make climate promises can't be voted out of office.
HSU: And I think what's really encouraging about China is, when the leadership is committed to something, they can really follow through.
HERSHER: India has also signaled it might be getting ready to promise big emissions cuts, and it's on track to achieve its current emissions promises. Levin says many countries recognize there's a lot to gain from burning less coal, less gas, cutting down fewer trees.
LEVIN: Clean water and clean air and more efficient food production - there are such tremendous benefits that can be borne by climate action.
HERSHER: Which brings us back to the United States. The federal government is currently trying to roll back policies that would control greenhouse gas emissions - things like limits on emissions from power plants and oil fields and cars. Meanwhile, hundreds of state and local governments are doing the opposite - passing local regulations, making local emissions promises - all of which puts the U.S. delegation at today's meeting in an awkward position and raises the question, if the U.S. is no longer leading international climate action, who will?
Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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