There's a Vast ‘Emissions Gap’ Between a Safe World and the One We're In, UN Says
(Bloomberg) -- Nations can jump-start their woefully inadequate climate policies by moving quickly in three areas, according to an urgent UN science report: Link post-pandemic fiscal recovery to curbing emissions, slash methane pollution and build a global carbon market.
Taking those actions would help close an enormous gap between the world's current trajectory and the necessary path to limit global warming, said the 12th UN Environment Program Emissions Gap report published Tuesday. Updates to national pledges made under the Paris Agreement—even if they are achieved—utterly fail to heed the timelines that scientists have identified for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
By the end of September, 120 countries that make up 51% of global emissions had published new or updated country goals, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Together those pledges reduce the predicted 2030 emissions levels by 7.5%, compared with the previous round of commitments. Emissions need to fall 55% for a two-thirds chance of staying below 1.5°C and 30% to keep below 2°C.
Climate math is brutal, and nations continue to tighten their own noose: To have a shot at the Paris Agreement's safer goal of 1.5°C, the world has eight years to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 28 gigatons—or about half the total. Despite critical gains in renewable energy and electric mobility, data are still moving in the opposite direction.
Greenhouse gas output rose 1.3% a year from 2010 to 2019, and "a strong rebound in emissions is expected in 2021," the authors write. A related UN report last week found that governments are projected in 2030 to produce 240% more coal, 57% more oil and 71% more gas than is consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5°C.
In addition to NDCs, many nations have pledged to reach a net total of zero emissions by 2050. If reached, those efforts would result in about 2.2°C of warming. Based on current NDCs, the world faces a catastrophic 2.7°C of warming. The emissions decline necessary to avoid catastrophe grows ever steeper.
There are important policy levers nations can consider in the short-term, according to the UNEP authors.
Less than 15% of global pandemic-related spending, or $2.3 trillion, has been used for purposes outside of healthcare and unemployment support, and around $415 billion has been directed toward low-carbon spending, including clean energy, efficiency and R&D. This green stimulus was concentrated in seven countries: South Korea, Spain, Germany, U.K., China, France and Japan.
Methane, the second most important greenhouse gas after CO₂, comes from many concentrated sources that make reducing emissions somewhat more straightforward than eliminating CO₂. Fossil fuel companies can save or make money by plugging methane leaks in old infrastructure. Waste management and, to a lesser extent, agriculture also provide opportunities for technical fixes. As it stands, NDCs cover only a third of the methane emissions necessary to hit the 2°C goal.
When climate negotiators converge on Glasgow on Oct. 31, a key agenda item will be how to structure a financial market that allows emitters to buy and sell the right to pollute. There are efficiencies to be gained from incentivizing market players to cut emissions cheaply, and translate those savings into sellable pollution permits. That could have a powerful influence on increasing national ambitions, according to the UNEP report. A reinvestment of carbon-market savings could help double emission cuts over the next decade, at no added cost in an ideal scenario.
The prevalence of temperature targets to frame policy debates in recent years has led many people to place too much emphasis on 1.5°C or 2°C as thresholds beyond which all is lost. The truth is more nuanced since, as UN scientists wrote in August, "Every ton of CO₂ emissions adds to global warming." Scientists now routinely highlight that a late start is always better than no start at all.
"Climate change is now longer a future problem. It is a 'now' problem," Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, writes in her foreward to the report, urging nations to accelerate their efforts. “We should not despair. We have already shown that climate action can make a difference.”
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