UN Emissions Gap report: World has failed to accelerate climate action in Covid-19 recovery plans

80% of Covid-19 recovery funding from national governments to date has gone to activities likely to increase or maintain emissions

That is according to the UN’s latest annual Emissions Gap report, published today (26 October). The report takes into account all commitments that have been updated ahead of COP26, which formally opens in Glasgow on Sunday (31 October). Commitments made as of last year would have put the world on track for a 3C temperature increase, but updates have shaved off 0.3C.

This small decrease, the report states, serves as evidence that nations have broadly missed the opportunity to use financial recovery plans for Covid-19 to accelerate climate action. Only around 20% of total recovery investments made by nations between March 2020 and May 2021 are going towards activities likely to reduce emissions, and almost all of this funding has been spent by the G20.

In terms of the real-world reductions in emissions likely to be achieved due to national commitments, this year’s report forecasts a reduction of 7.5% by 2030, against a 2019 baseline, up from 7% last year. Yet, this is a far cry from the 55% reduction needed to align the world with a 1.5C pathway.

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that any level of warming beyond the 1.5C mark will amplify negative impacts on nature, communities and the economy, with the worst impacts to be felt in the global south in the summer and the Arctic in the winter. As an example, in a 2C world, 420 million more people would be exposed to extreme heatwaves than in a 1.5C world. Heatwaves in locations including Pakistan and India are likely to cause mass deaths every year in a 2C world. Additionally, limiting the temperature increase to 1.5C could mean that up to 50% fewer people (up to 135 million fewer people) experience water stress than in a 2C world.

Also, the greater the temperature increase, the more likely it is that the world will surpass climate tipping points, creating feedback loops that intensify the problem. Tipping points include ice cap melt and ancient forest destruction at a large scale. 

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is imploring all nations which have stated that they will set net-zero targets to enshrine them in law and back them up with interim plans to cut emissions in line with 1.5C. Nations in this group include Japan, Australia, Russia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Most Paris Agreement commitments from nations, the UNEP Is warning, remain “vague, incomplete and inconsistent with [Paris]”.

It is also calling on nations with net-zero targets enshrined in law, of which there are eleven including the EU, bolster them with better commitments to cut emissions this decade. Should these plans be robust and properly delivered, 0.5C could be shaved off of the likely global temperature increase. Moreover, action will likely be driven in other nations as a result of this trend, putting the 2C pathway in reach.

The report additionally recommends that nations draw up more robust plans to slash methane emissions, stating that no-cost and low-cost solutions could deliver a reduction in annual global emissions of 20% within 12 months.

“Climate change is no longer a future problem – it is a now problem,” said the UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen.

“To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, 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.”

In keeping with this tone, the Emissions Gap report this year is entitled ‘The Heat is On: A World of Climate Promises not yet Delivered’.

Green economy reaction

Reacting to the report, Green Alliance’s head of climate policy Caterina Brandmayr said: “This is a stark reminder that we need to go further and faster to put the world on track for 1.5C.

“Net-zero targets are only the first step, and must urgently be translated into concrete actions, particularly by G20 nations, to cut our climate impact and build resilient economies across the world. COP26 must provide a clear route forward to accelerate emission reductions and ensure countries continue to ramp up their near term climate action.”

E3G’s climate diplomacy expert Tom Evans said: “The aim of COP26 is to ‘keep 1.5C alive’ but this report shows that window is closing fast. It yet again confirms what we already knew: there is a stark and worrying gap between where countries’ climate targets get us, and where we need to be to meet the Paris Agreement stretch goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. 

“To keep that hope alive, leaders at Glasgow must agree on a way forward to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions this decade – committing to enhance their 2030 climate targets again by 2023 at the latest – or else a 1.5C world may slip out of reach.  

“We also urgently need new 2030 climate targets committed from all countries that have yet to do so. The G20 group of major emitters all promised to enhance their targets at July’s climate Ministerial. China, India and Saudi Arabia must now fulfil this promise.” 

WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns Katie White said: “It’s clear from this report that we’re still not moving fast enough to close the global emissions gap and the planet is on the brink of irreversible harm as a result. It’s not too late, but this is a critical decade for the planet – we need to act now to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C and keep the planet safe for people and nature.

“With the biggest global emitters due to meet at G20 and COP26 in a few days’ time, leaders must come to the table ready to deliver the ambitious action that’s needed to close the gap as quickly as possible. The world is watching. We won’t forget if leaders fail to act while there’s still time.”

This is a breaking news story and more reaction will be added in due course.

Sarah George

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