UN releases bleak report on ’emissions gaps’

air pollution

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) has released its tenth annual report on “emissions gaps,” finding that the current rate of global carbon emissions will lead to an average temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100. The report was completed by international scientists and specialists to assess where countries are in terms of their emissions levels versus where they need to be to avoid the worst damage from climate change. Inger Andersen, the executive director of the program, wrote in the foreword that “[o]ur collective failure to act strongly and early means that we must now implement deep and urgent cuts… This report gives us a stark choice: set in motion the radical transformations we need now, or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change.”

For the last decade, UNEP has released findings that countries are not on track to protect from the worst effects of climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions despite increasing dire warnings and commitments to change. According to the report: “There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years; every year of postponed peaking means that deeper and faster cuts will be required. By 2030, emissions would need to be 25 per cent and 55 per cent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively.”

The report emphasizes the lack of progress over the peast years: “Each year, the report has found that the world is not doing enough. Emissions have only risen, hitting a new high of 55.3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2018. “that even if all unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement are implemented, we are still on course for a 3.2°C temperature rise.”

Furthermore, seven G20 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, South Africa and the US are either not on track to meet their 2020 Cancun Pledge emissions goals, or are projected with substantial certainty to miss them. Although more countries have been expressing commitments to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, few have released long-term strategies for achieving this goal.

The report is constructed with calculations primarily aimed at achieving a temperature increase between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. To achieve their nationally determined contributions, countries must increase their ambitions threefold for the 2 degree goal and more than fivefold for the 1.5 degree goal. Since G20 countries contribute over three-quarters of global emissions, their efforts will be the most significant. Selected opportunities for improvement in various areas were also included in the report. For instance, it was suggested that the US:

● Introduce regulations on power plants, clean energy standards and carbon pricing to achieve an electricity supply that is 100 per cent carbon-free
● Implement carbon pricing on industrial emissions
● Strengthen vehicle and fuel economy standards to be in line with zero emissions for new cars in 2030
● Implement clean building standards so that all new buildings are 100 per cent electrified by 2030

The report also generally emphasized the importance of phasing out coal, increasing energy efficiency, and heightening electrification of heating and transport. While Andersen wrote that the necessary cuts may seem “shocking,” she urged the importance of collective focus and effort on the changes that must be made to avoid the worst outcomes.

From Jurist, Nov. 26. Used with permission.

Note: The Paris Agreement, adopted at a December 2015 UN summit, permits a 2°C increase by 2030, but calls upon signatories to work towards a 1.°C increase. The safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is estimated at 350 parts per million; the planet recently surpassed 410 ppm, unprecedented in millions of years. The Cancun Pledges were adopted at the November 2010 Cancún Climate Change Conference.

Photo: Ralf Vetterle, Pixabay

  1. Greenhouse gases reach another record high

    From the World Meteorological Organization, Nov. 25:

    Geneva, 25 November 2019 – Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to the World Meteorological Organization. This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems.

    The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin showed that globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2017.

    The increase in CO2 from 2017 to 2018 was very close to that observed from 2016 to 2017 and just above the average over the last decade. Global levels of CO2 crossed the symbolic and significant 400 parts per million benchmark in 2015.

    CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the oceans for even longer.

    Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide also surged by higher amounts than during the past decade, according to observations from the Global Atmosphere Watch network which includes stations in the remote Arctic, mountain areas and tropical islands.

    Since 1990, there has been a 43% increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on the climate – by long-lived greenhouse gases. CO2 accounts for about 80% of this, according to figures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quoted in the WMO Bulletin.

    “There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the mankind,” he said.

    As Earth Island Journal notes, these are the highest CO2 levels in three million years.

  2. Imminent global ‘tipping point’ seen

    From the CBC, Nov. 29:

    The world may be teetering on the brink of a potentially irreversible cascade of climate tipping points that scientists say could lead to an “existential threat to civilization.”

    According to a new commentary published in the prestigious science journal Nature, we are so close to at least one or two of these tipping points — the thresholds beyond which a slow change tips over into big and abrupt planetary transformations — that we can’t rule out the process has already begun.

    “What’s happened now is we’ve got some direct physical evidence of the kind of accelerating changes that we expect at a tipping point,” said Timothy Lenton, a professor of Climate Change and director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter…

    One troubling possibility is that one climate tipping point may trigger others, like dominoes, piling disaster upon disaster.

    As ice caps melt and the sea ice shrinks, polar oceans heat up because without the ice, it no longer reflects as much of the sun’s energy back to space. Darker water also absorbs more heat, melting ice more quickly in a feedback loop.

    Increasing heat also leads more Arctic permafrost melting, which releases even more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, and further exacerbating Earth’s warming.

    Increasing temperatures also contribute to increasing wildfires in boreal forests in Canada, Alaska and Eurasia. As the forests burn, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere.

    “A great ecosystem that was taking up carbon from the atmosphere and helping us out is is now turning on us, if you like, releasing that carbon back. And adding to the problem, the soot from those fires sometimes is landing on the ice on top of the Arctic Ocean and is accelerating its melt,” said Lenton. “These things are starting to connect in damaging ways.”

    As we’ve noted before