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As the world gets ready for the most important climate conference of the year, COP26, governments’ climate targets remain far from sufficient.
New and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – the emission-curbing plans pledged by countries to the Paris Agreement on climate change – would reduce the expected level of 2030 emissions by 7.5 percent compared to previous NDCs, according to 2021’s annual Emissions Gap Report released yesterday. For context, a 55 percent reduction is needed to keeping global warming within the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists have said would limit the worst of climate-induced catastrophes.
“Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UN Environment (UNEP), which issued this the report.
“To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”
In a year marked by fires, floods, droughts and extreme heat, the stakes are high for COP 26, which will take place next week in Glasgow. So far, 116 countries have submitted new NDC targets, covering 61 percent of global emissions and half of the world’s population. Some countries’ plans, however, are not more ambitious than their previous plans.
In fact, the report states that the current NDCs put the world on the path to a temperature increase of at least 2.7 degrees by 2100 .
The formally submitted and announced targets of G20 countries would result in an annual reduction of roughly 3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent compared to their previous NDCs. Nevertheless, G20 countries are collectively expected to fall short of this by 1.1 gigatonnes annually, as only 10 have measures in place to achieve their previous NDCs.
Seven G20 countries – including the U.S., Australia and Brazil – are not expected to fulfill their previous NDCs, let alone updated ones, without significant policy change. India and Turkey have not updated their NDCs.
Despite this, countries’ net-zero targets are highlighted as a promising development. So far, 49 countries and the E.U. have net-zero targets, with most aiming to reach this by 2050. Current pledges cover more than half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of the world’s GDP and a third of the world’s population. These targets could potentially shave 0.5 degrees off warming from current 2100 projections to 2.2 degrees Celsius.
The report notes, however, that many net-zero targets remain ambiguous, and most are unclear on aspects including aviation, shipping and progress reporting. It also calls for more short-term actions to reach net-zero because delayed action and then a sudden rush to decarbonize as 2050 approaches could still result in more warming overall.
Countries are also described as having mostly missed the opportunity that recovery programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could have presented to transform economies to emit less carbon.
The vast majority of pandemic-related funds have been for immediate rescue spending, such as unemployment payments or healthcare costs. Of the USD 2.25 trillion that countries used to invest in long-term recovery, only 17 to 19 percent (USD 390 to 440 billion) could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Although time is running dangerously short, the report says that reducing methane – the second-most important greenhouse gas for global warming – is an important opportunity for mitigating climate change.
Methane leaks can be prevented at a relatively low cost by the fossil fuel sector. Such low-cost measures alone could cut human-caused methane emissions by 20 percent by 2030. However, other measures like dietary changes or switching to renewables are needed to cut methane emissions by 44 percent and limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.