Strong warnings issued ahead of climate change summit

Strong warnings issued ahead of climate change summit
Credit: Marek Piwnicki/Unsplash

New and updated climate commitments fall far short of what is needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, leaving the world on track for a global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century, according to the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) latest gap report.

The report - the Emission’s Gap Report 2021: The Heat is On - finds that countries’ updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) only take an additional 7.5 % off predicted annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, compared to the previous round of commitments.

Reductions of 30 % are needed to stay on the least-cost pathway for 2°C and 55 % for 1.5°C, the emission reduction goal set by for example the EU.

On the positive side, according to an update by by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the EU as a whole will meet its goals to reduce overall emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels, increase renewable energy by 20%, and improve energy savings by 20%.

The ‘20-20-20’ targets are a stepping stone towards more ambitious benchmarks for 2030 – yet to be set in stone – and, eventually, the EU’s long-term goal of going climate-neutral by 2050.

But this of course not enough if the rest of the world is lagging behind.

Only around 20 % of total recovery investments up to May 2021 are likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of this spending, almost 90 per cent is accounted for by six G20 members and one permanent guest. These are South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, France, Japan, and Spain as the permanent guest.

“As the title of this year’s report puts it: The heat is on,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his opening remarks at the press conference for the launch of the report (26 October). “And as the contents of the report show — the leadership we need is off. Far off.”

Released ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) starting on 31 October in Glasgow, the report finds that net-zero pledges could make a big difference. If fully implemented, these pledges could bring the predicted global temperature rise to 2.2°C, providing hope that further action could still head off the most-catastrophic impacts of climate change.

However, net-zero pledges are still vague, incomplete in many cases, and inconsistent with most 2030 NDCs.

“Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”

As of 30 September 2021, 120 countries, representing just over half of global greenhouse gas emissions, had communicated new or updated NDCs. In addition, three G20 members have announced other new mitigation pledges for 2030.

To have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the world has eight years to take an additional 28 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) off annual emissions, over and above what is promised in the updated NDCs and other 2030 commitments. To put this number into perspective, carbon dioxide emissions alone are expected to reach 33 gigatonnes in 2021.

When all other greenhouse gases are taken into account, annual emissions are close to 60 GtCO2e. To have a chance of reaching the 1.5°C target, the worlds need to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions. For the 2°C target, the additional need is lower: a drop in annual emissions of 13 GtCO2e by 2030.

“There has been progress, but not enough,” Alok Sharma, incoming COP26 President, said. “That is why we especially need the biggest emitters, the G20 nations, to come forward with stronger commitments to 2030 if we are to keep 1.5c in reach over this critical decade.”

Zeroing in on net-zero

Net-zero pledges – and their effective execution – could make a big difference, the authors find, but current national plans are vague and not reflected in NDCs.

A total of 49 countries plus the EU have pledged a net-zero target. This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of GDP and a third of the global population. Only eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions. The countries are Denmark, France, Hungary, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Spain and South Korea, and the EU as a whole.

If made robust and implemented fully, net-zero targets could shave an extra 0.5°C off global warming, bringing the predicted temperature rise down to 2.2°C. However, many of the national climate plans delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether net-zero pledges can be delivered.

Twelve G20 members have pledged a net-zero target, but they are still highly ambiguous. Action also needs to be frontloaded to make it in line with 2030 goals.

The potential of methane and market mechanisms

Every year, the Emissions Gap Report looks at the potential of specific sectors. This year, it focuses on methane and market mechanisms. Reduction of methane emissions from the fossil fuel, waste and agriculture sectors can contribute to closing the emissions gap and reduce warming in the short term.

Methane emissions are the second largest contributor to global warming. The gas has a global warming potential over 80 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon; it also has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide – only twelve years, compared to up to hundreds for CO2 – so cuts to methane will limit temperature increase faster than cuts to carbon dioxide.

Available no- or low-cost technical measures alone could reduce anthropogenic (caused by human activity) methane emissions by around 20 % per year. Implementation of all measures, along with broader structural and behavioural measures, could reduce anthropogenic methane emissions by approximately 45 per cent.

Final warning

Finally, the report finds that the opportunity to use COVID-19 fiscal rescue and recovery spending to stimulate the economy while backing climate action has been missed in most countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a drop in global CO2 emissions of 5.4 % in 2020. However, CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in 2021 are expected to rise again to a level only slightly lower than the record high in 2019.

Only around 20 % of total recovery investments up to May 2021 are likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of this spending, almost 90 per cent is accounted for by six G20 members and one permanent guest.

“We know that humanity’s future depends on keeping global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030,” the UN Secretary General concluded.  “And we also know that, so far, parties to the Paris Agreement are utterly failing to keep this target within reach.  As world leaders prepare for COP26, this report is another thundering wake-up call.”

“The clock is ticking,” he warned. “The emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap.  But leaders can still make this a turning point to a greener future instead of a tipping point to climate catastrophe.  The era of half measures and hollow promises must end. The time for closing the leadership gap must begin in Glasgow.”

The Brussels Times

Note: The article has been updated to include data from UNEP on polluting G20 countries and contries that have enshrined emission reduction targets in law.

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