22 Sep 2019 Story Environment under review

From “lost decade” of climate action, hope emerges

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today released a look back at ten years of its Emissions Gap Report—a hugely influential publication that compares where greenhouse gas emissions levels are headed to where they should be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

At first glance, the news seems bleak. The world would seem to have spent the last decade doing the exact opposite of what it should. Despite the warnings in each year’s gap report, greenhouse gas emissions grew at an average of 1.6 per cent per year from 2008 to 2017. In fact, these emissions are now almost exactly what early gap reports projected they would be in 2020 if the world did nothing to change its brown, polluting growth models.

With the policies currently in place, the world is heading for a 3.5°C temperature increase this century, compared to pre-industrial levels. This is far beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, or at least well below 2°C. If this hotter world comes to pass, all of the predictions of catastrophic climate impacts will come true. Rising seas, extreme weather events, and untold harm to people, prosperity and nature.

But behind the grim headlines, a different message emerges from the ten-year summary: one of possibility.

“The last decade didn’t bring the fall in greenhouse gas emissions we wanted, that is true. But we are, in many ways, in a better place than we were ten years ago,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

“Huge advances in awareness, technology and the will to act means that we are now poised to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions,” she added.

A platform for action

The ten-year summary lays out a number of encouraging developments that have taken place: political focus on the climate crisis is at an all-time high, including through the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and voters and protestors, particularly youth, are increasingly making it clear that the climate crisis is their number one issue.

Cities, regions and businesses are not waiting for central governments to force them to act. Around 7,000 cities from 133 countries, 245 regions from 42 countries, and 6,000 companies with at least US$36 trillion in revenue, have pledged to cut emissions.

In addition, the technology for rapid and cost-effective emission reductions has improved significantly. Renewable energy is a perfect example. Explosive growth means that clean energy avoided an estimated two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2017, as it provided around 12 per cent of global electricity supplies. The technology is now cheaper than ever to install.

This is all fantastic progress, but it is not even close to sufficient. According to the ten-year summary, nations must at least triple the level of ambition reflected in their climate promises under the Paris Agreement—known as nationally determined contributions—to get on track for a world below 2°C. They must increase ambition at least five times for the 1.5°C target.

Strong action by G20 members, which together account for 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, will be crucial. This action has yet to be seen, according to an advance chapter of the Emissions Gap Report focusing on ways the G20 can increase climate ambition.

Options abound for rapid emissions cuts

But, as the summary and advance chapter show, the G20 and other nations have dozens of options to meet the Paris targets. By using only proven technologies, the world could cut 33 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2030. This is more than half of today’s global annual greenhouse gas emissions. It is more than enough to stay on track for the 1.5°C target.

Around two thirds of this potential is available in areas where swift progress is possible: solar and wind energy, efficient appliances, efficient passenger cars, afforestation and stopping deforestation. Only a fraction of this potential is captured in national commitments under the Paris Agreement.

There are so many more opportunities.

Ending fossil-fuel subsidies would reduce global carbon emissions by up to 10 per cent by 2030. Reducing short-lived climate pollutants—such as soot and methane—can bring temperatures down quickly, as they do not linger in the atmosphere in the same way as carbon dioxide.

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, meanwhile, is an international commitment to reduce the use of powerful climate-warming gases, known as HFCs, in the cooling industry. This amendment can deliver up to 0.4°C of avoided warming. If the industry improves energy efficiency at the same time, it could double the climate benefits.

Another decade of no cuts would spell disaster

In November, UNEP will publish the tenth edition of the Emissions Gap Report. It will detail the size of the annual emission cuts needed to stay on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This will inform countries’ negotiators meeting for the next round of climate talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We already know these cuts will have to be significant. Every year of delayed action means the cuts become larger, more expensive and more impractical. If we get to 20 years of Emissions Gap Reports, and emissions have still not fallen, the world will face disaster. We simply can’t afford another lost decade.

At the Climate Action Summit, at the December climate talks in Santiago de Chile, in every government office, boardroom, business and home every day, we must do so much more on climate in order to do right by future generations.

UNEP released the ten-year summary at the UN Climate Action Summit as part of a package looking at advances in climate science. The G20 advance chapter was released independently as another input for the Summit. To find out more, visit https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/bridging-gap-enhancing-mitigation-ambition-and-action-g20-level-and-globally