Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions Will Not Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

Jesse Reynolds
9 min readDec 17, 2019

Although it remains essential, we shouldn’t count on emissions cuts. It is time to focus on additional responses

Last week’s climate summit yielded little in the way of action. Photo via UNFCCC.
Last week’s climate summit yielded little in the way of action. Photo via UNFCCC.

Last week, representatives of all countries gathered for their annual meeting to prevent climate change. Despite the motto “Time for Action,” the New York Times described it as “one of the worst outcomes in a quarter-century of climate negotiations.” Should we be surprised? Disappointed? Worried? I believe that insufficient action— which is the consistent result of nearly three-decades of such climate negotiations— is to be expected and will continue. Yet in the face of the most important contemporary environmental problem, we are relying too much on this one approach at the expense of others. In other words, we have put too many eggs in one basket. Fortunately there are other options.

Human-caused climate change poses serious risks for people and biodiversity. Understandably, the leading response to date has been to reduce (“mitigate”) the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that cause it. In this regard, there is some good news. Industrialized countries have reduced their emissions by more than 17% since the problem was first identified, despite their growing populations and economies (see emissions data from PBL). Globally, emissions per dollar of economic activity has fallen by 1/3 in that time. Advances in technologies and governance will likely continue these trends. And recent commitments by a few countries and US states to get to net zero emissions imply that policy-makers are finally dedicated to the task.

However, mitigation alone will not prevent dangerous climate change. To be clear, the connection between our greenhouse gas emissions with climate change is well-established, and the risks are grave.

To understand why emissions cuts will not be enough, let’s look at what has been done and what would be needed. Regarding the former, here are a few relevant facts:

  • All countries agreed in 1992 to an objective of “stabiliz[ing] greenhouse gas concentrations” in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since then, emissions have increased 57%
  • All countries in 2015 agreed to “reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon…
Jesse Reynolds

Dr. Jesse Reynolds is a scholar of international environmental policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.