Plans to meet international climate targets may fall short, new report says

Emissions billow out from a coal power plant in Utah in the United States. Photo: arbyreed via Flickr
A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme presses for global action before 2020 to begin reducing greenhouse gases beyond what nations have already promised.

Read an official press release for this report, available in multiple languages, here.

Current plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world will likely not be enough to achieve international targets for combatting climate change.

That’s the conclusion of a landmark report released 3 November by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It comes out just a day before the official start of the Paris Agreement – an international effort to try to limit the warming from climate change to below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, and to 1.5 degrees Celsius if possible. The new report examined the commitments that nations have made to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in line with this agreement. It found a large gap between what these plans will achieve by 2030 and what’s needed to meet the climate change targets.

Farooq Ullah, Executive Director of the Stakeholder Forum, participated in a high-profile event today in the United Kingdom to introduce the report, called “The Emissions Gap Report 2016.” He says that it highlights the need for strong science in the years ahead.

“This report is critical for showing how far current plans take us and how far we have yet to go,” says Ullah, who is also the Chair of Future Earth’s Engagement Committee. “What we need now are tools that make that research more accessible so that all people around the world can use scientific information to harness creativity and innovation at all levels, in all sectors and all countries to secure our future in a collaborative and universal way.”

UNEP has published an emissions gap report every year since 2012, but this year’s effort takes on a new importance in light of the Paris Agreement. The world’s nations entered into this agreement at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015 and have ratified in the months since. As part of this effort, countries of the world submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – essentially, plans for how they would make the cuts in emissions needed. China pledged, for example, to hit its highest levels of emissions by 2030 and to bump up its use of renewable energy.

In the 2016 report, UNEP concludes that if nations successfully follow their INDCs, the world's annual emissions of greenhouse gases in 2030 will be around 54 to 56 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. In contrast, limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius will mean holding those levels to 42 billion tonnes, 12 billion tonnes less. Such an overshoot could put the planet on a trajectory toward 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius of warming.

In a statement, Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of UNEP, said that the world is "moving in the right direction." But "if we don’t start taking additional action now, ... we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy," Solheim said. "The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

The report pushes for global action by 2020 to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions even more. In particular, UNEP emphasises the need for policies to increase energy efficiency in the building, industry and transportation sectors. That may include efforts like a recent drive in Bogota, Colombia, to switch out 2,100 public buses with more fuel efficient models. During the launch event, however, Ullah also said that the world needs to invest more heavily in research and development for low-carbon and sustainable energy technologies.

Ullah spoke during a portion of the event called “Non-state Actors are the new game changers.” He argued, as does UNEP’s report, that governments alone cannot close the emissions gap in the next few years. "Last December, the world made a huge step to combat climate change,” Ullah says. “But it will take a monumental effort from all of humanity – not just countries but businesses, NGOs, citizens and others – to meet those goals.”

Future Earth has launched multiple research and engagement activities to develop the knowledge and tools the world will need to rapidly decarbonise its economies. The programme, for example, is participating in events surrounding the upcoming 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a major climate conference beginning next week in Marrakech, Morocco.

Future Earth is also a partner on a recently announced effort to make climate data more accessible and open for communities around the world – with the goal of helping them to make choices based on evidence about how they respond to and slow the pace of climate change.

You can also read coverage on the Emissions Gap Report 2016 from The Washington Post, The Guardian and Scientific American.