UN: World must act now to close ‘unacceptable’ emissions gap

As figures show that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere increased at record speed last year, a stark UN report has warned that there is an "unacceptable" gap between national pledges and the emissions reductions required to meet the Paris Agreement's climate targets.

National pledges only deliver a third of the fall in emissions required by 2030, according to the UN’s annual report released today (21 October), which delivers a clear message to countries ahead of this month’s COP 23 climate change conference in Bonn.

The momentum built up before last year’s Paris Agreement ratification is faltering, the UN warns, with deeper and more rapid cuts required by governments and non-state actors such as businesses and cities if the world is to limit global warming to 2C.  

“One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said UN head of environment Erik Solheim.

“This is unacceptable. If we invest in the right technologies, ensuring that the private sector is involved, we can still meet the promise we made to our children to protect their future. But we have to get on the case now.”

Upward trajectory

Even with full implementation of Paris, a temperature increase of at least 3C by 2100 is very likely, the UN says. The picture looks much bleaker should the US withdraw from the historic deal.

Global emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide remained static in 2016 for the third consecutive year, raising hopes that emissions may have peaked before 2020. All of the world’s biggest emitting nations, except India, saw falling or static carbon emissions due to less coal burning and increasing renewable energy.

However, the UN report warns that other greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as methane are rising, while a global economic growth spurt could easily put CO2 emissions back on an upward trajectory.

Indeed, only yesterday the World Meteorological Organisation revealed that the concentration of CO2 rose in 2016 to hit a level not seen for more than more than three million years. The cause of this rise was attributed to a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event.

Back on track

Today’s UN report notes that current Paris pledges could put 2030 emissions up to 13.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level needed to stay on the least-cost path to meeting the 2C target, with a predicted emissions gap of 16-19 GtC02e in the case of the 1.5C target.

But it is still possible to put progress back on track, the UN insists. This will require stronger pledges when they are revised in 2020, and technology investments in key sectors such as agriculture, buildings, energy, forestry, industry and transport, which its says could save up to 36 GtCO2e/year by 2030.

The report cities investment in solar and wind, low-carbon vehicles, energy efficiency and afforestation as effective ways of achieving this aim. These methods, alongside actions to phase out the use of hydrophluorocarbons as set out in the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, can make a real contribution to reaching the longer-term temperature goals, the UN claims.

The UN document mirrors the findings of last week’s CDP report, which found that emissions targets from large corporates are around one-third of the way to bringing the private sector on a trajectory to keep global warming below 2C. That paper highlighted the need for more science-based targets.

‘Urgent need’

Commenting on today’s news, WWF chief scientific adviser Dr Stephen Cornelius said he was optimistic that technological advances could help keep warming well-below 2C.

“The effects of climate change are clearer each day,” Cornelius said. “From the Arctic changing in our lifetime to recent floods in South-East Asia, there is an urgent need for greater action. Our global emissions gap is widening and we must close this. If we cannot, it will make our Paris Climate Agreement targets a mere pipedream.

He added: “Nevertheless, technological revolutions are transforming the way we use energy and even how we drive vehicles. This gives us the possibility limiting global temperature rise to below 1.5C.”

Meanwhile, Grantham Research Institute policy director Bob Ward said that most countries recognise they must have higher ambition when they revise their Paris pledges in 2020.

“Despite President Trump’s threat for the United States to leave the Paris Agreement, many States, cities and companies have publicly committed to its implementation,” he said. “Significantly, the coal industry, a major source of GHG emissions and air pollution, is unlikely to be revived in the United States because it is being displaced by cleaner and cheaper sources of energy.

“Many countries now recognise that the transition to a low-carbon economy will generate sustainable growth and development, with lower poverty and higher living standards.”

George Ogleby

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