UN: Green Covid-19 recovery will put world on track to meet Paris Agreement

While Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have resulted in falling carbon emissions, they will rebound and the world will warm by more than 3C this century without a coordinated and ambitious global green recovery approach.

The UNEP is urging nations to stop relying on high-emitting industries for their economic recovery plans

The UNEP is urging nations to stop relying on high-emitting industries for their economic recovery plans

That is the conclusion of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) emissions gap report for 2020, released today (9 December).

The report reveals that globally, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased year-on-year in 2019 for the third consecutive year, marking a record high.

The UN does not yet have data for 2020 but is expecting a year-on-year reduction of 7% as a result of the pandemic. It is using the report to warn that emissions are likely to rebound, with none of the world’s most-emitting nations having succeeded at decoupling emissions from economic growth to date.

Using data regarding nations’ recovery stimulus planning and historic emissions trends, the UNEP has calculated that the world is likely to be more than 3.2C warmer than in pre-industrial times by 2100 in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. This is beyond the boundaries of the Paris Agreement and would result in wide-reaching negative impacts for communities, biodiversity and economies.

Emissions may ultimately decrease through to 2030 as a result of the pandemic, but this would not be sufficient for Paris alignment and could come at the expense of economic success. Moreover, there is still the risk of a possible rebound in nations which believed they had already seen their GHG peak. When all scenarios are considered, the expected fall in emissions translates to a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050.

But the report also details a different scenario, in which nations increase their domestic green recovery ambitions and actions, and in which international cooperation for a low-carbon economic recovery from the pandemic is strengthened. In this scenario, global annual emissions are 25% lower by 2030 than they were in 2025 – and there is a likelihood of more than two-thirds that warming will be capped at or below 2C.

The UNEP warns that bringing this scenario to fruition will be no mean feat. Nations with net-zero targets will need to update their 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement ahead of 2020 and must ensure they are fully aligned. Once they have done so, they will need to increase financing and policy support for high-emitting sectors, providing longer-term policy signals as soon as possible.

The UK notably submitted its updated NDC last week. It is targeting a 68% cut in emissions by 2030, consistent with the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget recommendations urge ministers to also set a 2035 target for a 78% reduction.

As is the case with all G20 nations, the UK is off track to delivering its initial NDC commitments – let alone its stricter updated commitments. The UNEP is warning that the gap between talk and action must be closed sooner rather than later, as many nations will need to front-load decarbonisation on the road to net-zero.

“The pandemic is a warning that we must urgently shift from our destructive development path, which is driving the three planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” UNEP executive director Inger Anderson said.

“But it is clearly also a major opportunity. I urge governments, businesses and individuals – particularly those with the greatest climate footprint – to take this opportunity to protect our climate and nature for decades to come.”

Green economy reaction

Responding to the report, Oxfam’s head of climate policy Time Gore emphasised the UN’s growing focus on the discrepancies between the nations causing climate change and those feeling its worst impacts.

The report concluded that the richest 1% of the global population accounts for more than twice the combined annual emissions of the poorest 50%. This ultra-wealthy class will need to reduce the emissions footprint of their lifestyles by a factor of 30, with key focus points being flying, road transport and wasted materials.

“It will be practically and politically impossible to close the emissions gap if governments don’t cut the carbon footprint of the wealthy and end the inequalities which leave millions of people without access to power or unable to heat their homes,” Gore said.

“A fair and green recovery will help the world bounce back from the from Covid-19 pandemic by creating millions of decent jobs, and help build more sustainable, resilient, economies that work for everyone.”

Sarah George



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