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With the world’s carbon polluters continuing to break temperature and emissions records, the United Nations is urging delegates to the upcoming COP28 climate summit to commit to rapid emission reductions, as average global warming heads toward a catastrophic 2.5 to 2.9°C.
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The 2023 Emissions Gap Report, published this week by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “tells us that the world must change track, or we will be saying the same thing next year—and the year after, and the year after, like a broken record,” writes UNEP Executive Director Inger Anderson. This year, the agency’s annual assessment of the gap between national greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction pledges and the 1.5° to 2°C target in the Paris climate agreement is also meant to inform the first Global Stocktake, a mechanism under the 2015 Paris deal designed to “ratchet up” countries’ commitments to climate action.
After Paris, emissions were set to rise 16% by 2030, and now the projected increase is 3%. But even with that considerable progress, “the challenge remains immense,” UNEP says. The world is heading for a 2.5°C to 2.9°C temperature rise unless countries reach beyond their current promises. They’ll have to cut emissions 28% to get on a pathway for a 2°C rise, and 42% to hit the 1.5°C Paris goal—in just seven years.
The report’s conclusions should come as no surprise, considering that UNEP offered “a nearly identical prediction” last year, writes the Washington Post. The continuing bottom line is that current climate commitments are not enough to keep global warming within 1.5°C, with only the specific details varying from one report to the next.
This year, UNEP writes that fully implementing all countries’ voluntary pledges, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), under the Paris agreement would keep temperatures from rising past 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Last year’s report indicated a threshold of 2.4°C.
While scientists emphasize that every fraction of a degree will shape the risk of climate impacts like wildfires, droughts, flooding, and sea level rise, the globe is heating up fast. “This year, until the beginning of October, 86 days were recorded with temperatures over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” UNEP writes [pdf]. “September was the hottest recorded month, with global average temperatures 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels.”
And yet, mitigation action has been insufficient. GHG emissions increased by 1.2% from 2021 to 2022 to reach a new record of 57.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).
Onus on G20 Countries
UNEP stresses that it’s up to the world’s wealthier countries to take the lead.
“Countries with greater capacity and responsibility for emissions—particularly high-income and high-emitting countries among the G20—will need to take more ambitious and rapid action and provide financial and technical support to developing nations,” the report states. Globally, the 10% of the population with the highest income accounted for 48% of emissions, with two-thirds of that group living in developed countries. In comparison, the bottom 50% of the world population contributed only 12% of total emissions. G20 countries account for about 76% of global emissions, averaging about 7.9 tons of CO2e per person. Least developed countries average 2.2 tons, small island developing countries 4.2 tons.
So far, none of the G20 countries are on track to meet their own net-zero goals, and those goals are insufficient in the first place, UNEP says. Several major G20 economies, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States issued new licences for oil and gas exploration, and Argentina pursued fossil fuel expansion. The U.S. is now the biggest fossil fuel producer in the world, with oil output doubling and gas extraction increasing by around 60% since 2010.
“Globally, governments still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement,” UNEP says.
The report “presents a chilling reality,” Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said in a release. “The stark reality is that the projected emissions from coal, oil, and gas extraction are on track to exceed the carbon budget needed to limit warming to 1.5°C by over 3.5 times.”
Slower Emission Cuts Mean More Carbon Removal
The report warns against relying on carbon dioxide removal (CDR)—including nature-based solutions like afforestation and novel technologies like direct air capture (DAC) and carbon capture and storage (CCS)—on which the world will become increasingly dependent if countries fail to get their climate pollution under control.
The availability of large-scale CDR options in the future cannot be taken for granted, UNEP warns. All the major emission reduction scenarios include CDR, but conventional methods come with major risks, including durability in the face of land competition, forest fires, and other disturbances.
With technological solutions like DAC and CCS, the big risk is an inability to deliver approaches at scale, given that “the technical, economic, and political requirements for large-scale deployment may not materialize in time.”