Oct 26, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate pledges have only inched forward since last year's summit, UN finds

Illustration of a clock almost striking midnight with a target on its face.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Leaders will head to the COP27 summit in Egypt in less than two weeks with marginally more ambitious emissions commitments compared to COP26 last year.

Driving the news: A new UN report, released Wednesday, starkly shows the modest momentum towards meeting the world's climate targets during the past year.

The big picture: The UN analysis examines countries' voluntary emissions reduction and climate adaptation pledges, known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs.

  • It finds that overall, the world is still falling far short of committing to the emissions cuts needed to meet the Paris targets. That agreement calls for holding warming to "well below" 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C compared to preindustrial levels.
  • The NDCs would set global average temperatures on a course to increase by about 2.5°C (4.5°F), the report finds.
  • Studies show some of the most devastating consequences of climate change, such as steeper sea level rise and the demise of tropical coral reefs, are more likely to occur if warming exceeds 1.5°C.
  • Despite calls in Glasgow for countries to step up with more stringent emissions plans, just 24 did so post-COP26 (through Sept. 23, the cutoff for the report). This may be partly due to the geopolitical turbulence and economic headwinds related to the Ukraine war and lingering effects from the COVID pandemic, which sapped momentum.

By the numbers: The climate report delves deep into the details of the NDCs, including how emissions and eventual warming would be altered if all the unconditional and conditional pledges are met.

  • The analysis finds that the voluntary pledges are a modest improvement compared to the runup to Glasgow, and show that if countries actually implement them, global emissions may peak before 2030.
  • However, studies show that is insufficient. In fact, emissions would need to decline by about 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels in order to meet the 1.5-degree target, the report and other recent research show.
  • Instead, they are likely to rise by 10.6% through 2030, down 3.1% from previous expectations.

There is also some good news. Last year's review of voluntary emissions pledges showed that CO2 emissions would continue increasing after 2030, but this is no longer the case in this year's edition.

Context: Given carbon dioxide's long atmospheric lifetime, the world has a finite budget for the amount of emissions before it is virtually certain that warming will reach or exceed the 1.5-degree and 2-degree targets.

  • For at least a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by 2100, projected cumulative CO2 emissions during the 2020-2030 period would likely use up 86% of the remaining emissions budget, based on the latest NDCs.
  • That means just two years of additional emissions after 2030 would propel global temperatures to 1.5-degrees or higher.
  • For the 2-degree target, the picture is slightly less daunting.

What they're saying: "The fact that only 24 new or updated climate plans were submitted since COP 26 is disappointing," Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, said in a statement.

  • "Government decisions and actions must reflect the level of urgency, the gravity of the threats we are facing, and the shortness of the time we have remaining to avoid the devastating consequences of runaway climate change," he said.
  • "This is a sobering moment, and we are in a race against time," said Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign affairs minister and COP27 president-designate, in a statement.
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