Oct 26, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Mind the emissions gap

Illustration of a person in a suit sawing a pipe emitting gas.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The sprint to secure more stringent emissions reduction commitments ahead of the COP26 summit has petered out well short of the finish line, a new United Nations report out this morning concludes.

Driving the news: The "Emissions Gap" report offers a clear comparison between where emissions need to be to reach the Paris Agreement's goals, and where they actually are. It takes new and preexisting emissions pledges, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), into consideration.

  • It presents a discouraging picture, as countries' recent pledges that were made through Sept. 30 would only shave off another 7.5% from predicted emissions in 2030, compared to previous commitments.

Why it matters: One of the main goals of COP26 is to keep both of the Paris climate agreement's temperature targets viable, yet if emissions remain on their current trajectories, the more ambitious 1.5-degree target would quickly be surpassed.

  • Compared to the 7.5% cut that the new plans will yield, the report says, meeting the 1.5°C target would require that 2030 emissions be cut by at least 55%.
  • To hit the agreement's 2°C target on a "least cost pathway," a reduction of 30% by 2030 is needed.
  • "As world leaders prepare for COP26, this report is another thundering wake-up call," said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. "How many do we need?"

By the numbers: The report says the surge in net-zero commitments, if actually realized, could help lower global warming further, possibly by another 0.5°C, down to 2.2°C (4°F) above preindustrial levels.

  • But it criticizes such targets are "vague" and out of step with countries' official emissions reduction plans through 2030.
  • The report finds the world has just eight years to shave off an additional 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from annual emissions, above what has already been committed.
  • This amounts to nearly cutting annual emissions in half once all greenhouse gases are factored in, the UN states.

Threat level: The new analysis is part of a triple whammy of UN assessments that show countries' emissions would still put us on course for some of the most dangerous impacts of global warming. They also add even more urgency to the Glasgow talks.

A separate UN report released Monday analyzed 165 NDCs, including revised 2030 targets submitted as of mid-October.

  • Overall, the existing plans would bring greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 that are 16% higher than 2010 levels, the UN found.
  • Both reports agree that greenhouse gas emissions are on track to warm the planet by at least 2.7°C (nearly 4.9°F) by 2100.
  • Another UN report Monday found that carbon dioxide levels in the air hit a record high in 2020, and are climbing quickly this year.

🎧 Go deeper: Global leaders prepare for the climate summit in Glasgow

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