Governments leading world to disastrous warming: UN

Not enough governments are on track to cut carbon emissions, but private sector could be the saviour if coal, oil and gas subsidies are removed, UN Environment suggests
<p>Countries are not switching away from coal fast enough to be effective [image by: Andrew / Flickr]</p>

Countries are not switching away from coal fast enough to be effective [image by: Andrew / Flickr]

Governments will not be able to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, and with business as usual, we are heading for a 3°C warmer world, says UN Environment. The private sector may be the only saviour, it adds in its Emissions Gap Report 2018 that comes three days before the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

G20 countries account for around 80% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The UN says six of them – US, Canada, South Korea, Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia – are not on target to meet their emission control pledges by 2020.

Individually, the US, Australia, Canada, EU, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Argentina and South Africa fall short. China, Japan and Brazil are on track, while India, Russia and Turkey are doing better than they had pledged, though this probably means they pledged little.

This ninth edition of the report also comes just days before the next climate summit in Poland, and a few weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a special report on what the world has to do if it wants to keep average global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.

See: 1.5 degree ambition demands radical change, UN warns

Under the Paris Agreement, all governments had pledged to keep this rise well below two degrees Celsius, with the 1.5 degree ceiling an aspirational goal. UN Environment now says, “It is still possible to keep global warming below 2°C, but the technical feasibility of bridging the 1.5°C gap is dwindling.”

If governments really want to keep the promises they made in Paris in 2015, they must raise their ambition by three times to meet the 2°C target and by five times to meet 1.5°C, says UN Environment. The Paris Agreement does have a provision for countries to raise ambition, and make fresh pledges in 2020. Negotiations on that have turned increasingly fractious, with most key governments trying to pass the parcel.

In this situation, the UN warns, if governments do not raise their ambitions by 2030, “Exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided.” It also says, “If the emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is very plausible that the goal of a well-below 2°C temperature increase is also out of reach.”

The world is now just over 1°C warmer than in pre-industrial times, and already facing more severe and more frequent storms, floods and droughts, while the sea level is rising, and rainfall is getting more uncertain, affecting farm production.

See: Floods and droughts – weather extremes beyond 1.5 Celsius

As for emissions, the situation is getting worse, not just because US President Donald Trump has announced his government will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Global carbon dioxide emissions increased in 2017, after a three-year period of stabilisation. Carbon dioxide is the main contributor among greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere. The UN says emissions should peak by 2020 if the Paris Agreement goal is to be met, but they still show no sign of peaking.

Image from the Emissions Gap Report 2018

The emissions gap

UN Environment warns, “If the emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is extremely unlikely that the 2°C temperature goal can still be reached.”

Every year, this report of UN Environment assesses the gap between anticipated emission levels in 2030, compared to levels consistent with a target of keeping average global temperature rise within 2°C or 1.5°C.

This year, the authors find that 57 countries, representing 60% of global emissions, are on track to close the gap by 2030. But that is not enough. “The current pace of national action is insufficient to meet the Paris targets. Increased emissions and lagging action means the gap number in this year’s report is larger than ever.”

Joyce Msuya, UN Environment’s Deputy Executive Director, said, “Governments need to move faster and with greater urgency. We’re feeding this fire while the means to extinguish it are within reach.”

Msuya is the acting head of the organisation after Erik Solheim was forced to quit by countries – including his native Norway – refusing to foot the bill for his extensive travels.

The report highlights that there is still a possibility for bridging the emissions gap and keeping global warming below 2°C. But, it says, “The kind of drastic, large-scale action we urgently need is yet to be seen.”

The solution 

Moving from analysis of government actions, the authors of this edition analysed global emissions in the context of fiscal policy, the current pace of innovation and climate action from the private sector and sub-national levels to offer their roadmap for the kind of “transformative action” required.

This is based on their estimate that city, state and regional governments, plus companies and investors can reduce annual emissions by 19 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, enough to close the gap to 2°C.

“Complemented by carefully designed fiscal policy, the potential is even greater,” said Jian Liu, UN Environment’s Chief Scientist. “When governments embrace fiscal policy measures to subsidise low-emission alternatives and tax fossil fuels, they can stimulate the right investments in the energy sector and significantly reduce carbon emissions.”

“The potential of using fiscal policy as an incentive is increasingly recognised,” he added, “with 51 carbon pricing initiatives now in place or scheduled, covering roughly 15% of global emissions. If all fossil fuel subsidies were phased out, global carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 10% by 2030. Setting the right carbon price is also essential. At US $70 per ton of CO2, emission reductions of up to 40% are possible in some countries.”

Now that the US government has contradicted its own President and reported that climate change is a huge and present risk to the country, a group of American investors has demanded that the Trump administration remove its fossil fuel subsidies right away.