Oct 27, 2022 - Energy & Environment

The UN's new climate warning

Illustration of smoke stacks with fumes in the shape of upward arrows coming out.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The world is hurtling toward between 2.6 and 2.8°C (5.04°F) of warming above preindustrial levels by 2100 barring major new steps, a UN analysis warns.

Why it matters: That's way beyond the 1.5°C target the Paris climate agreement set to avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

Driving the news: The 2022 "Emissions Gap Report," out this morning, shows the difference between where countries' emissions need to be to meet the Paris Agreement's targets, and what all of their pledged emissions cuts would actually achieve.

The big picture: This year's gap report, combined with another analysis released Wednesday, sets a sobering scene for the upcoming COP27 climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. There, countries will be pressed to do more to slash emissions.

  • The analysis, issued annually by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), has a faint silver lining, in that the upper range of projected warming has declined over time. A decade ago, it was as high as 4°C (7.2°F).
  • That upper range has come down because of the rapid deployment of renewable energy technologies, advances in climate science and other factors.
  • "The report makes it clear that progress has been made," said Zeke Hausfather, climate research lead at Stripe, via email.

Between the lines: However, studies have made it increasingly evident that potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming are likely to occur at lower warming thresholds than previously thought.

  • Even if the new predictions are lower than previous editions of the report, an increase of 2.6 to 2.8°C by 2100 is therefore likely to push some societies and many ecosystems past the brink.
  • The report goes into detail about the changes that are needed throughout society, from how food is grown, consumed and disposed of to how electricity is generated.
  • One idea already moving forward is the formation of partnerships between developing and industrialized countries to help share knowledge, technology and financing for lower carbon technologies.

What they're saying: "If we're serious about having a chance of keeping the window open for actually achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal, we are way beyond a situation where incremental change is sufficient," said Anne Olhoff, a lead author of the report, in an interview.

Zoom in: The report found countries have yet to lay out any "credible pathway" to meet the Paris Agreement's aspirational 1.5°C temperature target.

  • This warming limit would have the greatest chance of avoiding calamities like the death of tropical corals and the melting of large portions of Greenland and Antarctica.
  • New pledges since last year's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow would shave off less than 1% of projected emissions in 2030, Olhoff said.

By the numbers: Policies in place now, if they are not ratcheted up further, would yield 2.8°C of warming by 2100, the study concludes.

  • If all countries meet their unconditional emissions pledges, meaning they are independent of assistance from other nations, warming could be held a bit lower, to 2.6°C (4.68°F).
  • And if all unconditional plus conditional pledges are met, temperatures could be held to 2.4°C (4.32°F) of warming.
  • Even lower amounts of warming could be achieved if long-term net-zero targets are translated into near-term emissions targets, which most countries have yet to do.

Context: A separate UN report released Tuesday examined countries' revised emissions pledges and found that if fully implemented, global emissions may peak before 2030.

  • However, meeting the 1.5°C target would require a 45% cut in emissions compared to 2010 levels.
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