UN warns of 'unacceptable' greenhouse gas emissions gap

Report reveals large gap between government pledges and the reductions needed to prevent dangerous global warming
Fiona Harvey The Guardian 31 Oct 17;

There is still a large gap between the pledges by governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the reductions scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the UN has said.

Current plans from national governments, and pledges made by private sector companies and local authorities across the world, would lead to temperature rises of as much as 3C or more by the end of this century, far outstripping the goal set under the 2015 Paris agreement to hold warming to 2C or less, which scientists say is the limit of safety.

The UN’s findings come in its latest assessment of progress on climate change, published on Tuesday ahead of the COP23 conference, a follow-up to the Paris agreement, to be held in Bonn next week.

There was some good news, however: the report found that carbon dioxide emissions had held steady globally since 2014. Against that, emissions of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, had increased.

The “emissions gap” uncovered by the UN does not include the consequences of a US withdrawal from the Paris agreement. If the US president, Donald Trump, presses ahead with plans announced this summer to take the US out of the agreement, the picture would become “even bleaker”, the report found. The US is the world’s second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China.

Erik Solheim, the UN’s environment chief, called for urgent action: “We still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future. This is unacceptable. If we invest in the right technologies, ensuring that the private sector is involved, we can still meet the promise we made to our children to protect their future. But we have to get on the case now.”

There are signs that the world is moving away from its high-emissions trajectory. For instance, growing investment in renewable energy has caused the price of low-carbon power to plunge around the world, making it more attractive as an alternative to fossil fuels.

However, there is also a danger that if buildings and other infrastructure, such as transport, are built along current lines, they will “lock in” high greenhouse gas emissions for the future. Instead, cities should be designed to avoid the need for cars in favour of public transport, to make room for renewable energy generation, and to cut down on the need for air conditioning.

Private sector companies could also do more, according to the UN report. The world’s 100 highest-emitting publicly traded companies account for a quarter of global emissions, showing the scope for reducing the prospective dangers of global warming if they were to make changes to their business practices and efficiency.

The report also noted several potential short-term wins in staving off the worst effects of climate change, such as reducing the amount of soot entering the atmosphere, and phasing out the production of hydrofluorocarbons, used in air conditioning and refrigeration. The latter are powerful greenhouse gases, which when they reach the atmosphere cause warming many times greater than carbon dioxide, but there are alternatives which can be used instead.

Separately, the UN reported this week that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had reached record levels, in part owing to a strong El Niño weather system.

Emissions gap remains 'alarmingly high' says UN
Matt McGrath BBC 31 Oct 17;

In its annual review, the UN says the gap between carbon cutting plans and the reductions required to keep temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius is "alarmingly high".

Pledges made so far cover only one-third of the cuts needed by 2030 to keep below that goal, the review warns.

Even if all the promises are kept, temperatures might still rise by 3 degrees by 2100.

However, cost-effective options are available that can close the gap.

The UN has published an annual analysis of emissions every year since 2010.

This year's instalment re-iterates the point that current pledges are insufficient to keep within the temperature limits agreed in the Paris climate pact.

Emissions from human activities involving burning fossil fuels have stalled since 2014, caused by a reduction in coal use in China and the US, as well as the rapid rise of renewable energy sources.

Despite this slowdown, the World Meteorological Organization warned on Monday that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere were at a record high.

The new emissions gap report finds that global greenhouse emissions by 2020 "are likely to be at the high end of the range" consistent with keeping temperature rises below 2 degrees or 1.5C.

By 2030 the UN says that the global scale of emissions needed to keep within the 2-degree path should not exceed 42 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent. Based on the promises made, this report projects a gap of 11 to 13 gigatonnes, while for the 1.5-degree target, the gap is 16 to 19 gigatonnes.

"The Paris agreement boosted climate action, but momentum is clearly faltering," said Dr Edgar E Gutiérrez-Espeleta, Costa Rica's minister for environment and president of the 2017 UN Environment Assembly.

"We face a stark choice: up our ambition, or suffer the consequences."

Ominously, the report warns that if the emissions gap is not closed by 2030 then "it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2 degrees C can still be reached".

The report suggests that signatories of the Paris accord must significantly increase their ambitions in the new and updated national plans that will have to be submitted by 2020.

The authors also say that the private sector and cities are not doing enough. The report points out that the world's 100 largest emitting, publicly traded companies account for a quarter of global greenhouse emissions.

However, the UN says there are some relatively cheap options that can be taken up that have the potential to radically change the picture.

They say that solar, wind, efficient appliances, efficient passenger cars, planting more trees and preventing deforestation would more than cover the emissions gap.

The recommended actions in these areas would have a modest or net-negative cost says the report and could shave 22 gigtonnes of carbon equivalent by 2030.

"One year after the Paris agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

"This is unacceptable. If we invest in the right technologies, ensuring that the private sector is involved, we can still meet the promise we made to our children to protect their future. But we have to get on the case now."

If the Paris targets are to be reached then coal use for energy must stop the report warns. Some 80-90% of reserves must remain in the ground. This compares to around 35% for oil and 50% for gas reserves.

In terms of which countries as doing their fair share, the UN report says China, the EU, India and Japan are on track to meet their 2020 pledges.

Should the US follow through on its promise to leave the Paris pact, the report states that the picture will become bleaker.