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Since 2015, the world has cut projected global warming. But not enough, experts say

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Climate negotiations are underway in Dubai. World leaders are there to assess their progress limiting global warming based on the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Sultan Al Jaber is leading this year's talks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULTAN AL JABER: Since Paris, we have made some progress, but we also know that the road we have been on will not get us to our destination in time.

SUMMERS: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk is here with more on that progress and the hard road ahead. Hi there.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: OK, so we just heard Sultan Al Jaber say we've made progress since the Paris Agreement was signed back in 2015, but it feels like things are pretty dire. This has been the hottest year ever recorded.

HERSHER: Yeah, they are dire, but they used to be more dire. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the planet was headed for 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming. That's compared to temperatures in the late 1800s. Now the best guess is 2 1/2 to 3 degrees Celsius of warming, so that's a significant improvement. We've cut projected warming almost in half.

SUMMERS: OK, so I'm hearing you say it's still not good, but it could be worse. What's making a difference?

HERSHER: You know, a lot of it is more renewable energy like solar and wind. Those have gotten a lot cheaper. And that helps - right? - because it means that there is less carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere than there would have been if we used the same energy sources that we did a decade ago. Now, it's really important to say we are not burning less fossil fuels overall as a planet. We're burning more, but we're burning less relative to the economic growth that's happening. So if you imagine that greenhouse gas emissions were going up really steeply in the past, now that line is less steep. It's still going up, but we're on a better trajectory.

SUMMERS: Help us put this into some perspective. What does this actually mean for everyday life? - because I have to say, it does not really feel like we're in better shape climate wise. I mean, there are huge disasters happening incredibly frequently. Temperature records are falling.

HERSHER: Yeah, right. So even though we're on a better trajectory now than we were, say, a decade ago, we're still causing massive rapid global warming, and we're suffering the consequences, like you said. Like, giant rapidly intensifying hurricanes, like the one that hit Mexico this fall, are happening, extreme rain that causes deadly floods every single year - that's killing people - dangerous heat waves. So there's some dissonance, right? Humanity has successfully avoided some future warming, and that's good. It saves lives, but it's not enough. It doesn't save us from the impacts of our current amount of warming, which is already pretty devastating.

SUMMERS: And Rebecca, how does this play into the climate negotiations that are happening in Dubai now?

HERSHER: You know, it's front and center. These facts are the foundation for everything that's being discussed because under the Paris Agreement, this year world leaders are required to look back and assess the progress that's been made and to get ready to make some new promises that hopefully will protect even more lives in the future.

SUMMERS: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk. Thank you.

HERSHER: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM TOMPKINS SONG, "SEE ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.