Many countries, most prominently the United States, continue to drag their feet on dealing with the adverse consequences of climate change, despite repeated and dire warnings by United Nations-led experts about imminent dangers, including catastrophic weather patterns.
A new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report warns that the world is headed towards global temperature increases of 3.2°C or more with potentially disastrous results related to climate change for billions of people.
This is partly because of the reluctance of governments to bite the bullet and get on with it. Yet, the levels of ambition must increase three-fold to five-fold to prevent catastrophic climate effects.
The world’s richest and most influential 20 countries, called G20, collectively account for 78 per cent of all emissions, but only five have committed to a long-term zero emissions target. Many are struggling with political and technical hurdles.
The report does not point fingers but the wealthiest, the US, is doing mostly nothing because President Donald Trump has withdrawn from a global commitment, called the 2015 Paris Agreement. This has exacerbated uncertainty and diplomatic confusion, slowing down the impetus to tackling climate change head-on.
The report endorses earlier warnings that going beyond 1.5°C will increase the frequency and intensity of climate impacts, such as the heatwaves and storms occurring across the globe in the last few years.
The wider international community, excluding the Trump administration, is broadly in agreement that radical measures should be taken urgently to reduce carbon emissions to keep the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C. This was endorsed again at a UN climate summit in September this year.
The diplomatic process of tackling climate change began at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when governments signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and promised to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.
A 2015 agreement signed in Paris by parties to the UNFCCC promised to hold global warming “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures and to make “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”.
The figure of 1.5°C is important because the 2010s have been about 0.5°C hotter on average than the 1980s and an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that mean surface temperature is now 1°C above what it was in the pre-industrial world.
This is rising by about 0.2°C a decade resulting in a warming of 1.5°C or more in mid- to high-northern latitudes while much of the Arctic has seen more than 3°C. Melting Arctic ice and melting glaciers in high mountains like the Himalayas and Alps are giving cause for extreme concern.
Each year, UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report assesses the gap between anticipated emissions in 2030 and levels consistent with the 1.5°C and 2°C targets of the Paris Agreement. This report finds that greenhouse gas emissions have risen 1.5 per cent per year over the last decade.
On an annual basis, this would require cuts in emissions of 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 to meet the 1.5°C goal and 2.7 per cent per year for the 2°C goal.
“Unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement,” the report says.
“Temperatures are expected to rise by 3.2°C, bringing even wider-ranging and more destructive climate impacts. Collective ambition must increase more than fivefold over current levels to deliver the cuts needed over the next decade for the 1.5°C goal.”
“Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions – over 7 per cent each year, if we break it down evenly over the next decade,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director.
“We need quick wins to reduce emissions as much as possible in 2020, then stronger Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to kick-start the major transformations of economies and societies. We need to catch up on the years in which we procrastinated,” she added. “If we don’t do this, the 1.5°C goal will be out of reach before 2030.”
The NDCs, as the Paris commitments are known, are voluntary targets set by governments to reduce the various man-made emissions that adversely impact on climate change. They are not being deployed fast enough or at a sufficiently large scale.