16 December 2020
Emissions Gap Report 2020: 1.5°C Goal Requires Green Recovery, Rapid Action
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The UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 assesses the gap between anticipated emission levels in 2030 and levels consistent with a 2°C/1.5°C temperature target.

The report finds that the 7% emissions decline caused by COVID-19 in 2020 will have a negligible climate impact, however a green pandemic recovery has the potential align 2030 emissions with the 2°C goal.

The report cautions that net-zero pledges have yet to be reflected in countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement and backed by rapid action.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has released its annual flagship Emissions Gap Report, warning that the world is on track to warm more than 3°C this century. Although COVID-19 caused a brief emissions dip, the report predicts that the long-term impact on climate change will be negligible unless coupled with a green recovery.

The report finds greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew an average of 1.4% per year since since 2010. Total 2019 GHG emissions, including those related to land-use change, climbed to a new peak of 59.1 GtCO2e, exhibiting a more rapid year-on-year increase of 2.6%, caused by the significant increase in forest fires. This was the third consecutive year of global GHG emissions growth, the report warns. The top four emitters, China, the US, the EU27+UK, and India, contributed 55% of total emissions, not accounting for land-use change, while the Group of 20 (G20) accounted for 75% of total emissions. The report notes efficiency improvements and growth in low-carbon energy sources resulted in declining Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) emissions, however non-OECD emissions continued to rise.

Current Paris Agreement pledges will limit global warming to no less than 3.2°C by the end of the century.

The report anticipates 2020 emissions to drop 7% compared to 2019 levels due to COVID-19, but this dip will slow global warming only 0.01°C by 2050. However, the report finds that a global green recovery, guided by direct support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, no new coal power plants, and nature-based-solutions, among other policies, could reduce 2030 emissions by up to 25% from pre-COVID-19 predictions, significantly increasing the possibility of limiting warming to below 2°C above preindustrial levels, though 1.5°C would remain out of reach. Thus far only a quarter of the G20 countries have dedicated shares of their spending to low-carbon measures.

The Emissions Gap Report repeats previous estimates that current Paris Agreement pledges will limit global warming to no less than 3.2°C by the end of the century. By 2030, annual emissions must be 15 GtCO2e below current conditional nationally determined contribution (NDC) targets to limit warming to 2°C, and policies are collectively falling short of achieving current NDC targets by 3GtCO2. Conversely, according to the report, “the most significant and encouraging climate policy development of 2020” is the move by 126 countries, representing 51% of global emissions, to commit to or consider mid-century net-zero targets. A UNEP press release notes that these pledges have yet to be reflected in countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement or backed by effective action. If achieved, they have the potential of reducing warming by 0.5°C.

The report also analyzes consumer behavior and the shipping and aviation sectors. The richest 1% of the world’s population account for two times the combined emissions share of the poorest 50%, it finds. The report recommends replacing flights with rail, enabling cycling and car sharing, and improving energy efficiency of housing. 

Though technology and operations improvements have increased fuel efficiency and there has been progress in emissions limitation agreements for both shipping and aviation, which together represent 5% of global emissions, projected increase in demand means this will not likely result in absolute emissions reductions. The report finds both sectors need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition from fossil fuels.

The report concludes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is yet possible if green recovery is combined with rapid implementation of net-zero pledges. [Publication: Emissions Gap Report 2020] [Executive Summary] [Publication Landing Page] [UNEP Press Release

By Gabriel Gordon-Harper, Thematic Expert on Climate Change and Sustainable Energy

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