A woman in Tanzania prepares a meal on an energy-efficient cooking stove

UN warns of ‘climate catastrophe’ under latest plans

Image credit: FAO, Giuliano Napolitano, Pietro Cenini, getty images, alamy

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that the world is, despite more ambitious decarbonisation pledges, on course for catastrophic climate change. Its assessment finds that recent national plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions fall far short of keeping warming within the 1.5°C target.

The UNEP said that even with new and updated plans and pledges from countries for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, the world faces global warming of at least 2.7°C by the end of the century.

The latest climate plans and pledges brought forward by countries to tackle emissions in the medium term are likely to reduce emissions by just 7.5 per cent by 2030 compared to their previous commitments, it said. This falls far short of the 55 per cent required to meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement, keeping warming with within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels. Beyond these levels, warming will pose an existential threat to island nations.

The national plans (nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) previously put forward fell far short of the 1.5°C goal, prompting the submission of updated plans for action up to 2030 ahead of COP26. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report found that these plans still leave the world on course for catastrophic global warming.

The NDCs will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.9bn tonnes in 2030 compared with previous NDCs. Including pledges from China, Japan, and South Korea brings emissions reductions to 4bn tonnes. However, emissions must be reduced by a further 28bn tonnes in 2030 to keep the world on track for maximum warming of 1.5°C; this is equivalent to almost halving current annual emissions (60bn tonnes) in addition to reductions already planned.

The UNEP analysis found just under half of the updated NDCs will lead to lower 2030 emissions than previous NDCs, while 18 per cent will lead to the same or higher emissions. Long-term net-zero targets, meanwhile, are too vague and do not prompt action quickly enough, the report warned.

In more encouraging news, 49 countries and the EU have pledged long-term net-zero targets, which could limit warming to within 2.2°C. However, this depends on net-zero plans being fully and urgently implemented.

Launching the report in the week before COP26, UNEP executive director Inger Andersen commented: “The world has to wake up to the imminent peril we face as a species. Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem.”

UN secretary-general António Guterres added: “We are still on track for climate catastrophe.”

The UNEP report showed that despite optimism about the opportunities presented to make a 'green recovery' from the coronavirus pandemic, this has not come to pass. Just a fifth of the recovery investment to help reboot economies following the pandemic has gone towards green measures.  While emissions dropped during the height of the pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions have bounced back and reached record concentrations.

It identified low-hanging fruit, such as tackling methane emissions at source using inexpensive technology (this alone could reduce emissions of the potent gas by a fifth) or implementing carbon markets to drive significant cuts in CO2 emissions.

Alok Sharma, COP26 president, commented: “As this report makes clear, if countries deliver on their 2030 NDCs and net-zero commitments which have been announced by the end of September, we will be heading towards average global temperature rises of just above 2°C. Complementary analyses suggest that the commitments made in Paris would have capped the rise in temperature to below 4°C.”

“So, there has been progress, but not enough. That is why we especially need the biggest emitters, the G20 nations, to come forward with stronger commitments to 2030 if we are to keep 1.5°C in reach over this critical decade.”

Last week, the UNEP published its Production Gap Report, which confirmed that planned production by fossil-fuel-producing nations is more than double the levels that are required to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C.

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