Governments often set, then fail to meet, goals for fighting global warming. Do deadlines help? Or does “blah blah blah” of unkept vows hurt the planet?
Climate activist Alizée tied herself to the net at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris, France, 3 June 2022. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
A French climate activist leapt onto the court at the French Open tennis tournament in Paris this month and tied herself to the net wearing a white tee-shirt with a cryptic message: “We have 1,028 days left.”
Bemused tennis players Casper Ruud of Norway and Marin Cilic of Croatia halted their semi-final match on the red clay while the protester, who identifies herself only as Alizée, was carried away by security guards. She spent 40 hours in detention.
Her warning – 1,028 days from her June 3 protest works out as March 27, 2025 – was perhaps the most precise deadline ever used to urge action to cut greenhouse gas emissions to avert ever more severe climate change.
Governments, scientists, companies, cities and activists frequently set deadlines for action on global warming — they’ve included 2000, 2012, 2020, 2021, 2030 and 2050 — hoping that a countdown clock will spur a shift towards green energies, such as wind and solar power, away from coal, oil and gas.
But action has often fallen short.
In April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said there had been a “litany of broken climate promises” by governments over the years that was putting the world on a “fast track to disaster” of more heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, extinctions of animals and plants and rising seas.
There’s a risk that broken promises lead to a damaging cycle of hope, followed by disappointment and, for some, despair. Despair can play into the hands of those who oppose climate action, such as some producers of fossil fuels.
Many climate change experts say deadlines are vital.
So does it help to set new deadlines, hoping to galvanise action, when so many have fallen short since governments first adopted a climate action treaty at a summit in Brazil in 1992? For instance, that 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change set a non-binding ambition of limiting emissions by rich nations to 1990 levels by the year 2000. They failed.
Many experts say deadlines are vital — the problem is getting governments to stick to them.
“Ambition, deadlines and targets are good,” Lee White, the minister of Environment for Gabon, in central Africa, told News Decoder. He said that a looming date for a school exam, for instance, means many students do homework, even if they fall short of their ambition of top grades.
He said the key stumbling block was that climate change was not among the top priorities for governments in rich nations, where politicians often focus on shorter-term economic problems such as wages, inflation or soaring energy prices linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Of the five key issues for a prime minister or a president, it (climate change) is still not up there. Until it is, we won’t solve it,” White said.
French tennis protester Alizée is a member of Dernière Rénovation (Final Renovation), a group that wants the French government to slash energy use by buildings, by improving everything from heating to insulation, by 2040. The building sector accounts of about a third of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union.
Dernière Rénovation issued a three-year ultimatum in March 2022 for the French government to get on track to fix buildings as a cornerstone of a strategy to combat climate change. That is the origin of the 1,028 days on her tee-shirt.
Late March 2025 “won’t be the end of the world,” Alizée, 23, told a French television interviewer. “It’s just to say that there is a very small window of action, just two or three years. After that it will be too late” to avoid ever more deadly impacts of climate change, she said.
UN chief has accused many governments of ‘lying’ by failing to live up to promises.
In April, a United Nations panel on climate change urged immediate action to reach the toughest ambition of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to limit the rise in average global surface temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times. Temperatures are already up by about 1.2 degrees.
To get on track for 1.5, it said global greenhouse gas emissions must peak “by 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030.” That would be an unprecedented pace of cuts, especially since global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, hit a record high in 2021.
The Paris Agreement has no power to punish countries that fail to keep their climate vows. The text even spells out that checks have to be carried out in a “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive manner.”
In April, Guterres flatly accused many governments of “lying” by failing to make cuts in emissions to match promises. “Current climate pledges would mean a 14% increase in emissions” by 2030, he said.
He added: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
Despite a history of falling short, some environmental treaties have succeeded, such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol for protecting the ozone layer high above the planet that also targets planet-heating gases. And some nations have successfully cut emissions.
‘Blah, blah, blah’
Still, there is rising frustration at the overall failure of many governments to keep climate promises. Angering developing nations that are most at risk of rising temperatures, rich governments missed a 2009 goal of mobilising $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the poor cope with climate change.
Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg mocked government climate pledges about a “green economy” or “net zero emissions” by 2050 as mere “blah blah blah” at a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year.
Now, with only eight years left and little sign of a fall in emissions, the shift is towards saying that “every tenth of a degree matters” to avoid despair if temperatures quickly cross the 1.5 threshold. The focus is becoming “1.5C is better than 1.6C, 1.6C is better than 1.7C.”
‘Setting targets is a very sensible thing to do.’
But there are some bright spots.
Last year, 10% of global electricity came from wind and solar power, double the share in 2015 when governments adopted the Paris Agreement, according to Ember, an independent think-tank. And prices of solar and wind energy and batteries have fallen up to 85% since 2010.
With flourishing new technologies to displace fossil fuels, “the potential for action has never been greater,” Richard Black, senior associate of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit in London, told News Decoder.
“In principle, setting targets is a very sensible thing to do,” he added. He said government goals, such as “net zero emissions by 2050,” pave the way to new laws that can guide billion-dollar investments in a greener economy.
“There are many walks of life where you face tough decisions. Do you despair or do you knuckle down and try even harder?” Black asked, noting that the people of Ukraine were boldly fighting the Russian invasion even though Russia’s army is much bigger and far more powerful.
Christiana Figueres, formerly the UN´s climate chief and an architect of the Paris Agreement, urges an attitude of “stubborn optimism” to achieve climate goals. “This is difficult. We cannot delude ourselves,” she once told me. “There is no guarantee of success, but not trying is a guarantee of failure.”
The main climate deadline this year, agreed in Glasgow, is for all countries to “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 national climate action plans by the end of 2022.
For that deadline, “we have 184 days left.”
Three questions to consider:
- Is it a good idea to set deadlines for action on climate change?
- Does a history of past broken promises undermine climate action?
- Why don’t governments keep pledges when they say climate change is so serious?
Alister Doyle is a British freelance writer based in Oslo who worked with Reuters for more than three decades, including as the company’s first environment correspondent from 2004-19. He has worked in more than 50 nations, mostly in Europe and Latin America, and spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Knight Science Journalism fellowship from 2011-12. Among other stories, he landed with British scientists in a small plane on an Antarctic ice shelf in 2009 — weeks before it cracked up into the ocean.