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Climate crisis: Widening emissions gap threatens meltdown

October 27, 2022

The window to rein in climate-wrecking emissions and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is fast closing, says a UN report. Societal transformation may be the only way to avoid a coming calamity.

smokestacks next to water as the sun sets
The gap between emission cut pledges and actual implementation is growingImage: Branden Camp/AP Photo/picture alliance

Despite a year of climate-change related extreme floods, storms and wildfires that have devastated communities globally, a new United Nations report finds that current national emissions pledges will lead the world to dangerous levels of heating.  

"We are in a climate emergency," said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "And still … nations procrastinate."

States committed to steep emission cuts by 2030 at last year's COP 26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. But the gap between pledges and implementation is yawning.

In its review of the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the emission cuts pledged under the 2015 Paris climate agreement — since COP 26, the UN report found that just 0.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent will be cut by 2030. That's less than 1% of total projected 2030 emissions.

The 2022 Emissions Gap Report states that emissions must fall by 45% over those envisaged under current policies by 2030 to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) warming limit set in Paris.

Soaring temperature rise unless countries act

Global average temperatures are set to rise by up to 2.8 C, nearly double the 1.5 C limit, under current policies, said the report. However a 2.4 C rise is most likely if current NDCs are implemented.

"This report tells us in cold scientific terms what nature has been telling us, all year, through deadly floods, storms and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast," said Andersen.

The UNEP findings were echoed by a "State of Climate" report released Wednesday. It showed that of 40 climate progress indicators in sectors including transport, energy and climate finance, none are on track to meet 1.5 C targets by 2030.  

UNEP found Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Canada are among the countries missing the 2030 target under existing policies.

'Staying as close as possible to 1.5 C'

The response to calls in Glasgow for strengthened 2030 NDCs have not led to significant improvements, and many of the national plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 are also often "not credible," according to John Christensen, international senior advisor at Danish green think tank Concito, and a lead author the UNEP report.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine and resultant energy crisis is partly to blame for what the UNEP report calls a "wasted year." 

With EU nations relying in the short-term on highly polluting coal or imported liquid natural gas to make up for a shortfall in Russian gas, this needs to be quickly reversed via a big shift to renewables to avoid major climate damage, said Christensen. 

Loss of coral reefs and polar ice sheets due to temperature rise cannot be reversed in the medium term once they are gone, even if temperatures fall again, he explained.

While vulnerable countries like Pakistan are feeling intense climate impacts like huge flooding, more extreme temperatures are now also a feature of the changing weather cycle in much less vulnerable Europe, the researcher noted. The continent saw unprecedented heat, drought and floods over the last year as a consequence.

"We need to stay as close as possible to 1.5 C," he said. "But it's going to be a challenge if you look at the numbers. This report is a red flag to say we are nowhere near on track."

The aftermath of Pakistan’s deadly floods

Tackling climate crisis through 'system-wide' transformation

With the near complete failure of governments to implement policies to reach climate targets, the UNEP report authors explored deeper solutions via what Andersen calls "system-wide transformation."

This includes the decarbonization of the electricity supply, industry, transport, buildings and food systems. Financial systems will also need to reformed "so that these urgent transformations can be adequately financed," said Andersen.

"It's about all countries in all sectors, but needs to reflect national contributions and circumstances," said Christensen.

This global shift includes the need for richer countries to help coal producing and consuming states like Indonesia or South Africa get off fossil fuels in a way that protects lives and livelihoods.

An exploding growth of renewable energy and the relative demise of fossil power is set to propel this revolution, according to Christensen.

"If you see how much new renewable power is being put up compared to other sources, renewables are by far dominating on investment," he said, adding that coal-dependent nations like China and India are starting to cancel planned coal power plants.

The push for energy independence in the wake of the war in Ukraine and rising fossil fuel prices, could also accelerate a "more rapid shift to renewables," he said. The International Energy Agency also believes, in a report released Wednesday, that the war could hasten the green energy transition. 

The expansion of clean energy will allow for the vital electrification of industry, transport, and domestic heating and cooling, thereby underpinning a multi-sector transformation, noted the UNEP report.

Infographic: How does electricity affect the environment

Similarly, food systems, which account for a third of global emissions, need to be overhauled.

Dietary changes away from high-emission meat and dairy and tackling food waste should be combined with decarbonization of food supply chains, according to the UNEP researchers.

Such transformations would help reduce 2050 food system emissions to around a third of current levels, as opposed to emissions doubling under current practices. 

This transformation will also address the health impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change, according to a report released this week in medical journal The Lancet. 

"Households [are] vulnerable to volatile fossil fuel markets, exposed to energy poverty, and dangerous levels of air pollution," said Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown at University College London. Ongoing fossil fuel dependence will worsen these "health harms." 

Can COP 27 help close the emissions gap?

Following recommendations at COP 26 in Glasgow, a work program for urgently scaling up ambition on cutting greenhouse gases is set to be agreed at next month's climate conference in Egypt.

Another focus at the conference will be how to pay for loss and damage suffered due to extreme weather in climate vulnerable nations. Regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, suffer the worst effects of climate breakdown while producing relatively low emissions.

But closing the emissions gap and ensuring that 2030 climate targets are met will also be vital.   

"It is a tall, and some would say impossible, order to reform the global economy and almost halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but we must try," said Andersen. "Every fraction of a degree matters: to vulnerable communities, to species and ecosystems, and to every one of us."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.