UN Emissions Gap Report 2020: World on track for 3C temperature rise by 2100 – despite Covid emissions dip

The emissions of the world’s richest 1 per cent account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Thursday 10 December 2020 17:58
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The world is barrelling towards a temperature rise in excess of 3C this century, despite a pandemic-related dip in emissions which ultimately will have negligible impact in the long run.

This was the stark findings of the 2020 Emissions Gap Report, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on Wednesday, which looks at  the disparity between what’s needed to tackle the climate crisis, and current greenhouse gas levels. 

The report explores what steps must be taken if we are to achieve the goal of the 2015 Paris Accord, and hold global heating  below 2C this century, or the increasingly aspirational 1.5C target. 

The 2020 report found that global emissions are expected to fall up to 7 per cent this year because of reduced travel, industrial slowdowns and lower electricity generation during the coronavirus pandemic.

But it will barely make a dent: the dip only translates to a 0.01C reduction of global heating by 2050.

As it currently stands, predicted emissions in 2030 put the planet on a path to a 3.2C increase this century. A three-degree world would bring mass extinctions and leave swathes of the planet uninhabitable. An estimated 275 million people would be at risk in areas flooded by sea-level rise, according to non-profit Climate Central.

In 2019, total emissions from greenhouse gases, including land-use change, hit a record high.

Global emissions have increased, on average, 1.4 per cent per year since 2010. Last year saw a spike of 2.6 per cent due to widespread forest fires, including at record levels in the Amazon.

The “nationally determined contributions” – targets for reducing emissions by around 2030 which each country signed up to under the Paris Agreement – remain “woefully inadequate”, the new report stated. 

The Paris deal has a “ratchet mechanism”, meaning each nation must come out with a bolder target for reducing emissions every five years. Updated NDCs are expected by the end of 2020.

“The levels of ambition in the Paris Agreement must be roughly tripled for the 2C pathway and increased at least fivefold for the 1.5C pathway,” the 2020 report found.

A special 2018 report by the world’s leading climate scientists found that even at 1.5C heating, the world will face severe climate impacts. At 2C, the consequences significantly worsen. 

To take one example: at 1.5C heating, some 14 per cent of the global population would be exposed to severe heat waves at least once in five years. At 2C, it rises to 37 per cent facing exposure.

However the 2020 report contained a glimmer of optimism. If governments commit to a “green recovery” from the pandemic, it stated, then predicted 2030 emissions could be cut by around a quarter. This would give the world a fighting chance at the 2C goal. 

The report calls for prioritising zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, no more coal plants and promoting large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.

And if governments act swiftly, there is still a possibility of achieving the 1.5C goal, the report says. 

(However there are indications that 1.5C warming is already locked in. “There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5C by 2024,” secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas of the World Meteorological Organisation said last week.) 

The UN report also called on leaders to cement emerging net-zero commitments at the next global climate summit, COP26, postponed due to the pandemic and now taking place in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021. 

Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, urged governments to back green economic recoveries from Covid-19 and raise their climate ambitions next year.

Ms Andersen said that the Emissions Gap report “shows that a green pandemic recovery can take a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions and help slow climate change”.

The most “significant” development of 2020, the report says, has been the growing number of countries committing to net-zero emissions goals by 2050.

So far 126 countries, covering 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had adopted, announced or are considering net-zero goals.

Last week, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, announced a target to reduce the UK’s emissions by at least 68 per cent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The UK has also committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.

President-elect Joe Biden has set a target for net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and if the US adopts this goal, the share would jump to 63 per cent.

However while the net-zero goals are “encouraging”, they point to a “vast discrepancy” in the NDCs, the report found.

The emissions gap report also looks at specific sectors: in 2020, consumer behaviour, shipping and aviation.

Shipping and aviation, which account for 5 per cent of global emissions,  need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, the report finds.

Individuals, particularly in the developed world must also make significant lifestyle changes. Around two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private households. 

The wealthy bear the greatest responsibility: the emissions of the richest one per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent.

This group will need to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 if there is any hope of meeting the Paris targets, the Emissions Gap report said.

UNEP suggests a switch from short-haul flights to rail travel, incentives and improvements for cycling and car-sharing, making homes more energy efficient and reducing food waste as actions to help lower carbon consumption.

Dr Kat Kramer, Christian Aid’s climate lead, described the green recovery as a “life raft” to get us on track for tackling the climate crisis.

“Combining post-Covid economic investment to accelerate the change to a zero-carbon world gives us real hope that we can limit global heating to the all-important 1.5C temperature increase,” she said. 

2020 is set to be one of the three hottest years on record, a WMO report found last week. There has been an unprecedented wildfire season in the western United States, while blazes have consumed vast areas of Australia, Siberia and South America. Death Valley in California hit 54.4C (129.9F) on 16 August, believed to be the highest temperature ever recorded.

A record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season struck in 2020, including unprecedented back-to-back category-4 hurricanes in Central America last month.

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