The world is heading for 3 degrees of warming this century, warns UN report


The United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) emissions gap report – Emissions Gap Report 2020 – released on December 9 warns: Despite a brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature rise of 3.2°C this century.

The report published at the end of every year measures national commitments to reduce emissions to limit global warming.

According to the report, a green pandemic recovery could cut around 25% off the greenhouse emissions predicted for 2030 and put the world on the 2°C path (even more reductions would be required to achieve the 1.5°C goal).

The UNEP report said:

▶ Global GHG emissions continued to grow for the third consecutive year in 2019, reaching a record high of 52.4 GtCO2e (range: ±5.2) without land-use change (LUC) emissions and 59.1 GtCO2e (range: ±5.9) when including LUC.

▶ Fossil carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (from fossil fuels and carbonates) dominate total GHG emissions including LUC (65 per cent) and consequently the growth in GHG emissions. Preliminary data suggest that fossil CO2 emissions reached a record 38.0 GtCO2 (range: ±1.9) in 2019.

▶ Since 2010, GHG emissions without LUC have grown at 1.3 per cent per year on average, with preliminary data suggesting a 1.1 per cent increase in 2019. When including the more uncertain and variable LUC emissions, global GHG emissions have grown 1.4 per cent per year since 2010 on average, with a more rapid increase of 2.6 per cent in 2019 due to a large increase in vegetation forest fires. LUC emissions account for around 11 per cent of the global total, with the bulk of the emissions occurring in relatively few countries.

▶ Over the last decade, the top four emitters (China, the United States of America, EU27+UK and India) have contributed to 55 per cent of the total GHG emissions without LUC. The top seven emitters (including the Russian Federation, Japan and international transport) have contributed to 65 per cent, with G20 members accounting for 78 per cent. The ranking of countries changes dramatically when considering per capita emissions.

▶ There is some indication that the growth in global GHG emissions is slowing. However, GHG emissions are declining in Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies and increasing in non-OECD economies. Many OECD economies have had a peak in GHG emissions, with efficiency improvements and growth in low-carbon energy sources more than offsetting the growth in economic activity. Despite improving energy efficiency and increasing low-carbon sources, emissions continue to rise in countries with strong growth in energy use to meet development needs.

▶ There is a general tendency that rich countries have higher consumption-based emissions (emissions allocated to the country where goods are purchased and consumed, rather than where they are produced) than territorial-based emissions, as they typically have cleaner production, relatively more services and more imports of primary and secondary products. In the 2000s, the gap between consumption and production was growing in rich countries but stabilized following the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. Even though rich countries have had higher consumption-based emissions than territorial-based emissions over the last decade, both emission types have declined at similar rates.

▶ The reduction in GHG emissions in 2020 due to COVID-19 is likely to be significantly larger than the 1.2 per cent reduction during the global financial crisis in the late 2000s. Studies indicate that the biggest changes have occurred in transport, as COVID-19 restrictions were targeted to limit mobility, though reductions have also occurred in other sectors.

▶ Although CO2 emissions will decrease in 2020, the resulting atmospheric concentrations of major GHGs (CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)) continued to increase in both 2019 and 2020. Sustained reductions in emissions to reach net-zero CO2 are required to stabilize global warming, while achieving net-zero GHG emissions will result in a peak then decline in global warming.

▶ Assessments of the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated recovery measures on emissions by 2030 are still few and highly uncertain. However, this report provides explorative projections based on available studies.

▶ The impact of the general slowdown of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated rescue and recovery responses is expected to reduce global GHG emissions by about 2–4 GtCO2e by 2030 compared with the pre-COVID-19 current policies scenario. This assumes a pronounced short-term dip in CO2 emissions, after which emissions follow pre-2020 growth trends.

▶ If the initial short-term dip in CO2 emissions is followed by growth trends with lower decarbonization rates due to countries’ potential rollback of climate policies as part of COVID-19 responses, the decrease in global emissions by 2030 is projected to be significantly smaller at around 1.5 GtCO2e and may actually increase by around 1 GtCO2e compared with the pre-COVID-19 current policies scenario.

▶ Global GHG emissions are only projected to be significantly reduced by 2030 if COVID-19 economic recovery is used as an opening to pursue strong decarbonization. This could result in global GHG emissions of 44 GtCO2e by 2030, a reduction of 15 GtCO2e (just over 25 per cent) by 2030 compared with the pre-COVID-19 current policies scenario.

▶ There is a significant opportunity for countries to integrate low-carbon development in their COVID-19 rescue and recovery measures, and to incorporate these into new or updated NDCs and long-term mitigation strategies that are scheduled to be available in time for the reconvened twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in 2021.

▶ At the time of completing this report, 126 countries covering 51 per cent of global GHG emissions have net-zero goals that are formally adopted, announced or under consideration. If the United States of America adopts a net-zero GHG target by 2050, as suggested in the Biden-Harris climate plan, the share would increase to 63 per cent.

▶ The following G20 members have net-zero emissions goals: France and the United Kingdom, which have legally enshrined their 2050 net-zero GHG emissions goals; the European Union, which aims to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050; China, which announced plans to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060; Japan, which announced a goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050; the Republic of Korea, the president of which committed the country to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 in a speech to parliament; Canada, which has indicated its intention to legislate a goal of net-zero emissions (though it is unclear if this refers to just CO2 or all GHGs) by 2050; South Africa, which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; and Argentina and Mexico, which are both part of the UNFCCC Climate Ambition Alliance working towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

▶ There has been limited progress of G20 members in terms of providing formal submissions to the UNFCCC by 2020 of mid-century, long-term low GHG emission development strategies and new or updated NDCs. As at mid-November 2020, nine G20 members (Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) have submitted long-term low GHG development strategies to the UNFCCC, all of which were submitted before net-zero emissions goals were adopted. No G20 member has officially submitted a new or updated NDC target.

▶ Although the recent announcements of net-zero emissions goals are very encouraging, they highlight the vast discrepancy between the ambitiousness of these goals and the inadequate level of ambition in the NDCs for 2030. Furthermore, there is inconsistency between the emission levels implied by current policies and those projected under current NDCs by 2030, and, more importantly, those necessary for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

▶ To make significant progress towards achieving the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement by 2030, two steps are urgently required. First, more countries need to develop long-term strategies that are consistent with the Paris Agreement, and second, new and updated NDCs need to become consistent with the net-zero emissions goals.

▶The emissions gap has not been narrowed compared with 2019 and is, as yet, unaffected by COVID-19. By 2030, annual emissions need to be 15 GtCO2e (range: 12–19 GtCO2e) lower than current unconditional NDCs imply for a 2°C goal, and 32 GtCO2e (range: 29–36 GtCO2e) lower for the 1.5°C goal. Collectively, current policies fall short 3 GtCO2e of meeting the level associated with full implementation of the unconditional NDCs.

We are not even close to the target

So far, “we are not even close to where we should be,” said Anne Olhoff, Head of Strategy, Climate Planning and Policy at UNEP, and the report’s lead author.

Even before the forecast temperature rise, 2020 is on track to be one of the warmest on record, with wildfires, droughts, storms and glacier melt intensifying.

A rise of 3.2°C is almost impossible to comprehend, says Olhoff. “You have to keep in mind, these are global averages. A rise of 3.2 degrees may mean two degrees in Denmark, but it could mean seven degrees in central Africa. It will make large parts of the earth uninhabitable. The increase in extreme weather events, the impact of melting of ice sheets, will be enormous.”

“We would need to see something of a similar magnitude every year to get on track to the Paris goals,” said Olhoff. “But we need to do it in a way where we are not shutting down economies, where it won’t hurt people like it’s done this year.”

In order to slow that temperature rise, nations need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6% a year through 2030. That is roughly on par with the reductions because of this year’s global shutdown over the COVID-19 pandemic, when factories closed and people around the world stopped flying, shopping and commuting.

In fact, this year’s suffering will not count for much at all unless it is backed by long-term structural changes to the way the world consumes energy and uses fossil fuels.

That means governments need to support zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reduce or eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, ban new coal plants, and promote nature-based solutions such as large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation, all as an essential part of their recovery plans.

According to Olhoff, fiscal investments into global recovery plans are worth 12% of global GDP this year. “That money can only be spent once,” she says. If the investments are not green, “there’s a big risk that they will commit us to an even more fossil fuel-based future that will be very difficult to break out of.”

So far, few recovery plans include the kind of green commitments that will make a difference. Olhoff is still optimistic that there is room for change. “A lot of these investments are just announced, they are not implemented yet, so there is still the opportunity to make them greener.”

At least this year, according to the report, there has been a big increase in the number of countries, including large emitters that have announced commitments to net zero emissions targets before or around the middle of the century.

Of course, says Olhoff, “It doesn’t help if you just announce that you will be climate neutral in 2050. You have to back it up with climate action now and with much stronger climate commitments for 2030.”


On Dec. 2, Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization announced that 2020’s global temperature is set to reach 1.2°C above the pre-industrial levels, and that there is 20% chance of the global average temperature temporarily exceeding 1.5°C by 2024. That is the milestone the Paris Accords were established to avoid.



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