UN climate goals within reach after recent carbon-cutting pledges: Study

Nations have to submit progressively more ambitious carbon-cutting pledges every five years. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The goals of the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement now seem more within reach after recent climate pledges by major carbon-polluting nations, according to a recent report.

In an analysis of new climate promises from China and other nations, along with the carbon plans of United States President-elect Joe Biden, the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) group found that the rise in world temperatures could be held to 2.1 deg C by the end of this century if the new promises are kept.

It is still significantly above the 1.5 deg C limit that the UN's climate panel says the world should aim for, but far better than the 3.5 deg C rise the world was on track to reach prior to the Paris climate deal.

Under the 2015 pact, nearly 200 nations agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and aim for 1.5 deg C if possible to reduce the risks from a rapidly warming world.

Until recently, the combined emissions cutting pledges of all nations meant the world was on track to warm about 3 deg C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

While the long-term picture has improved, the authors say it is vital for nations to ramp up emissions cuts this decade as climate change impacts are being increasingly felt, from more extreme heatwaves, droughts and wildfires to more severe storms and floods.

"We see emissions continuing to rise through to 2030, which will not get them onto the kind of pathway that will allow governments to meet their ambitious net-zero commitments," Dr Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, one of CAT's partner organisations, said in a statement on Tuesday (Dec 1).

What urgently needs to happen is for nations to submit much more ambitious pledges to cut emissions by 2030, the authors say.

In UN language, these pledges are called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). Nations are meant to submit new or updated pledges by the end of this year as part of the Paris Agreement's process of progressively increasing global ambition.

"No large emitter has yet submitted a substantially updated NDC (for the 2030 target), and the emissions gap is huge. Short-term targets are not a little bit off, they are totally off.

"Near-term action and policies need to be ramped up considerably," said Dr Hare, who helped lead CAT's analysis.

Nations have to submit progressively more ambitious carbon-cutting pledges every five years. The latest analysis looked at the impact of a flurry of net-zero emissions pledges in recent months.

In a September address to the UN General Assembly, President Xi Jinping pledged that China's emissions would peak before 2030 and his country would be carbon neutral by 2060 - a dramatic shift for the world's top carbon polluter and coal consumer.

Soon after, Japan and South Korea pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, while President-elect Biden's climate plan is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In addition, Mr Biden, who will become president on Jan 20 next year, has pledged to spend US$2 trillion ($2.7 trillion) over four years on green energy, transport and infrastructure.

The European Union in July agreed to devote nearly €550 billion ($883.5 billion) to green projects over the next seven years - the largest single climate pledge ever made.

The CAT analysis found that China's 2060 pledge, if achieved, would reduce the end of century warming estimate by 0.2 to 0.3 deg C. Another 0.1 deg C could be shaved off if the US is carbon neutral by 2050.

South Africa and Canada have also recently announced net-zero targets. In total, 127 countries responsible for around 63 per cent of emissions are considering or have adopted net-zero targets, the report note.

The carbon neutrality goals would mean nations largely shifting away from fossil fuels and dramatically ramping up use of renewable energy and other clean energy sources.

"I think everyone can be more hopeful that the world can take sufficient measures because of the change in political support for getting to net-zero emissions by 2050, with the big caveat that what we're seeing is by far insufficient," Dr Hare told The Straits Times.

"But to retain any credibility, governments will need to bring their 2030 targets into line with their net-zero goals by around 2050, and this is the main political challenge ahead in the next 12 months," he said, referring to the major UN climate meeting, called COP26, to be held in Glasgow at the end of next year.

Climate scientists say deep cuts this decade are vital given the planet has already warmed 1.1 deg C and this year is on track to be among the warmest on record. Unless deep cuts are made, the world could hit 1.5 deg C of warming this decade.

Some nations, though, are still resisting tougher action.

"I think what is critical here is that the laggards will slowly wake up to realise they have been left behind," said Dr Hare.

Australia is a major coal and gas exporter and the federal government has so far refused to commit to a net-zero 2050 target or submit tougher 2030 pledge.

And yet 80 per cent of Australia's coal and gas export market is now covered by countries with net-zero goals around 2050, Dr Hare said.

"What that means, if these (carbon neutrality) goals are taken seriously, is that these countries principally China, Japan and South Korea will move fairly rapidly away from the need to import coal and gas and Australia's market will start to shrink quickly," he added.

"So it won't just be diplomacy and investment, it will also be market economics that bring laggards on board."

He also said there was a growing risk of border tax adjustments on carbon being introduced by different jurisdictions, such as the European Union, to penalise countries exporting carbon-intensive commodities.

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