Catastrophic gap between pledged and needed climate action: UN

The Paris treaty has also vowed to explore the feasibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 deg C.
The Paris treaty has also vowed to explore the feasibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 deg C.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS (AFP) - There is a "catastrophic" gap between national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the actions needed to cap global warming below 2 deg C, the UN's environment chief warned on Tuesday (Oct 31), days ahead of global climate talks in Bonn.

Even if fulfilled, these voluntary pledges - inscribed along with the 2 deg C target in the 2015 Paris climate pact - would see the world heat up 3 deg C, unleashing deadly heatwaves, superstorms and rising seas, UN Environment said in its annual Emissions Gap report, the bleakest ever.

Record-setting extreme weather in 2017 - including monsoon flooding, raging fires, and a trio of deadly hurricanes - likely bears the fingerprint of global warming, it noted.

"One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future," said Eric Solheim, head of the UN agency. "Governments, the private sector and civil society must bridge this catastrophic climate gap."

Compiled by more than 200 climate scientists and experts, the annual, 100-page analysis tracks progress towards the Paris goal of checking the rise in global temperatures at "well below" 2 C.

With many poor nations already feeling the sting of a planet out of kilter with only 1 deg C of warming, the treaty also vowed to explore the feasibility of holding the line at 1.5 deg C.

Current commitments for slashing pollution take us only a third of the way towards the 2 deg C target, and would eat up 80 per cent of humanity's "carbon budget" - the amount of CO2 we can spew into the atmosphere without crossing that threshold - by 2030, the report said.

It doesn't help that the United States, the world's second largest emitter, has abandoned its greenhouse gas goals under Donald Trump.

SENSE OF EMERGENCY

"Momentum is clearly faltering," said Edgar Gutierrez-Espeleta, Costa Rica's environment minister and president of the current UN Environment Assembly.

"We face a stark choice: up our ambition, or suffer the consequences." If the gap is not closed by 2030, the report said, "it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2 deg C can still be reached."

In 2016, humanity emitted the equivalent of 52 billion tonnes - or gigatonnes - of CO2 (52 GtCO2e), including other gases such as methane.

To stay on the 2 deg C track, that number must come down to about 42 GtCO2e by 2030, and eventually hit "net zero" - meaning that any gases going into the air must also be pulled out.

But even with carbon cutting pledges from more than 190 nations, carbon pollution in 2030 is set to rise to 53 GtCO2e. Without them, emissions shoot up to 60 GtCO2e.

"The report is a good counter-weight to some of the optimism out there about global CO2 emissions more-or-less stalling for the last two years," said contributing author Oliver Geden, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "It highlights the sense of emergency."

Under the UN climate talks, countries will not revisit their pledges until 2020 - "the last opportunity to close the 2030 emissions gap," the report said.

But ramping up of national commitments, experts agree, will not be enough, and the UN report highlights other needed actions.

RAZOR-THIN MARGIN OF ERROR

One is the rapid phase out of coal. If all the coal-fired power plants in the world operate to the end of their lifetimes, the report noted, it would add the equivalent of five years' global CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.

A global tax of US$100 (S$136) per tonne of CO2 would help speed the transition from dirty to clean, renewable energy.

Halting deforestation and planting more trees; boosting efficiency in appliances and buildings; improving livestock management and convincing people to eat less meat - all of these are also seen as critical.

But there is no more wiggle room, said Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo and a reviewer of the report.

"Every aspect is at the edge of feasibility," he told AFP. "If one of them fails, we miss out on closing the 2030 gap."

Actions by big business, cities and other sub-national actors - much touted since Trump was elected - will help only at the margin, and will be difficult to quantify, the UN agency said.

For the first time, the report devotes an entire chapter to a once-taboo set of technologies that remove CO2 directly out of the air.

"Scientists have been assuming the deployment of carbon dioxide removal for years now, simply because there is no other way to tell a positive story about staying under 2 deg C, much less 1.5 deg C," said Geden, an expert on such technologies.