Mind the (emissions) gap

Anna Triponel

December 7, 2020

UNEP’s annual emission gap report is here and the results show that we are still not on track to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Here are some of the major findings that might surprise you: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased for the third year in a row, reaching a record high; COVID-19 helped reduce some carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but atmospheric GHG concentrations are still rising; governments are missing opportunities to build climate transition into post-pandemic economic recovery strategies; and the emissions of the world’s richest 1% are more than twice the emissions of the world’s poorest 50% together.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released the 11th annual edition of its Emissions Gap Report, which “assesses the gap between estimated future global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if countries implement their climate mitigation pledges and the global emission levels from least-cost pathways that are aligned with achieving the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. This difference between “where we are likely to be and where we need to be” is known as the ‘emissions gap.’”

Below is a summary of the top findings of the 2020 report:

  1. “GHG emissions continued to increase in 2019” for the third consecutive year, “reaching a record high.”

2. “CO2 emissions could decrease by about 7 per cent in 2020 … compared with 2019 emission levels due to COVID-19, with a smaller drop expected in GHG emissions as non-CO2 is likely to be less affected. However, atmospheric concentrations of GHGs continue to rise.”

3. “The COVID-19 crisis offers only a short-term reduction in global emissions and will not contribute significantly to emissions reductions by 2030 unless countries pursue an economic recovery that incorporates strong decarbonization.”

4. “The growing number of countries that are committing to net-zero emissions goals by around mid-century is the most significant and encouraging climate policy development of 2020. To remain feasible and credible, it is imperative that these commitments are urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action, and are reflected in the NDCs [nationally determined contributions].”

5. “Collectively, G20 members are projected to overachieve their modest 2020 Cancun Pledges, but they are not on track to achieve their NDC commitments. Nine G20 members are on track to achieve their 2030 NDC commitments, five members are not on track, and for two members there is a lack of sufficient information to determine this.”

6. “The emissions gap has not been narrowed compared with 2019 and is, as yet, unaffected by COVID-19. By 2030, annual emissions need to be 15 GtCO2e [gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide] (range: 12–19 GtCO2e) lower than current unconditional NDCs imply for a 2°C goal, and 32 GtCO2e (range: 29–36 GtCO2e) lower for the 1.5°C goal. Collectively, current policies fall short 3 GtCO2e of meeting the level associated with full implementation of the unconditional NDCs.”

7. “Current NDCs remain seriously inadequate to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Recently announced net-zero emissions goals could reduce this by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, provided that short-term NDCs and corresponding policies are made consistent with the net-zero goals.”

8. “COVID-19-related fiscal spending by governments is of unprecedented scale, currently amounting to roughly US$12 trillion globally, or 12 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020. For G20 members, fiscal spending amounts to around 15 per cent of GDP on average for 2020.”

9. “So far, the opening for using fiscal rescue and recovery measures to stimulate the economy while simultaneously accelerating a low-carbon transition has largely been missed. It is not too late to seize future opportunities, without which achieving the Paris Agreement goals is likely to slip further out of reach.”

10. “Early COVID-19 fiscal rescue and recovery measures provide valuable insight for policymakers designing measures for the immediate future.”

11. “Domestic and international shipping and aviation currently account for around 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions and are projected to increase significantly. International emissions from shipping and aviation are not covered under the NDCs and, based on current trends, are projected to consume between 60 and 220 per cent of allowable CO2 emissions by 2050 under IPCC illustrative 1.5°C scenarios.”

12. “Current policy frameworks to address emissions are weak and additional policies are required to bridge the gap between the current trajectories of shipping and aviation and GHG emissions pathways consistent with the Paris Agreement temperature goals. Changes in technology, operations, fuel use and demand all need to be driven by new policies.”  

13. “Lifestyle changes are a prerequisite for sustaining reductions in GHG emissions and for bridging the emissions gap. Around two thirds of global emissions are linked to the private household activities according to consumption-based accounting. Reducing emissions through lifestyle changes requires changing both broader systemic conditions and individual actions.”

14. “Equity is central to addressing lifestyles. The emissions of the richest 1 per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent.”

Read the executive summary here: UNEP, Emissions Gap Report 2020 – Executive Summary (December 2020). You can also find the full 2020 report here: UNEP, Emissions Report 2020 (December 2020).

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