Every year, the UN releases what is called the “Emissions Gap Report”. This is a very important report to pay attention to because it measures the state of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Then it analyzes the direction they are trending and compares that to where we intend them to be.
This UN climate change report determines the levels that emissions need to be at to avoid dangerous impacts on our environment. The difference between this level and the actual level that we are at is called the “emissions gap”, hence the name of the report.
This gap is important to measure because the devastating natural disasters that we see around the world, including crippling droughts and extreme storm activity, have potentially intensified due to this gap. It’s a great indicator of climate change and the health of the environment overall moving forward.
Of course, the report doesn’t stop there. The Emissions Gap Report also includes recommendations and warnings to help readers understand the impact of the situation and what we can do about it.
Let’s take a look at five key points pulled from the report.
The emissions gap is large.
The key data that the gap is based on are what is called “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs. This is the public climate commitment made by every country in the world that partakes in this effort. Using the NDCs and the projected emissions pathway based on those NDCs, scientists have a number they can compare with the latest scientific models on limiting global warming.
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The Paris Climate Agreement’s temperature goals - based on scientists’ determination for preventing serious climate impacts - aim to limit global warming temperatures to one-and-a-half to two degrees Celsius or less.
Unfortunately, the emissions gap is much larger than initially estimated.
According to the world climate change report findings, our work is cut out for us.
The worldwide NDCs, if followed, will limit total global emissions to around 53-56 gigatonnes by 2030. But to keep warming under two degrees, these emissions would need to be reduced to 40 gigatonnes. And to hit the more aggressive goal of one-and-a-half degrees, that number would need to be reduced to 24 gigatonnes.
In other words, to reach the true desired goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, global emissions would need to be less than half of the current commitments.
More concerning is that this gap has grown worse compared to recent reports. New scientific research and calculations that improve the accuracy of these estimations, now point to more aggressive emissions cuts necessary in order to reach those climate goals worldwide.
Even if we reach our commitments, our emissions goals will not be achieved.
The main goal of the Paris Agreement was to ensure that emissions would peak by 2030. But even if countries fully implement their NDCs and hit all their commitments, this will not happen based on the findings of the climate change report in 2018.
From 2014-2016, global emissions from fossil fuels and industrial sources flatlined - an encouraging trend. But in 2017, they increased again, reaching 54 gigatonnes, which was a record high.
If we want to hit the goal to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less, we need to peak emissions by 2020. This is a critical goal, but at this rate, emissions will likely grow through 2020 instead. In fact, they will grow through 2030 as well.
This is the first time that the Emissions Gap Report documents individual countries’ trends in peaking their emissions. The trends are encouraging in that area. In 1990, only 19 countries had peaked their emissions. In 2010, that number grew to 49. The estimation is that number will reach 57 by 2030.
This is great news - but unfortunately, it’s not enough. If we want to reach a global emissions peak in the next few years, we’ll need to do a lot more.
NDCs need to be strengthened to reach goals.
Our top goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to one-and-a-half degrees. But according to the Emissions Gap Report, at current commitments, that will be impossible.
Countries need to strengthen their goals and be more aggressive in cutting emissions, or we will blow right past that number. And in reality, the minimum goal of the Agreement - two degrees - will be extremely unlikely at current levels as well.
The only way to do this is to close that emissions gap. To accomplish this and reach the one-and-a-half degree goal, emissions need to be cut by more than half of today’s levels. To reach the two degree goal, there still would need to be a 25% cut.
Despite the NDCs, G20 countries are not on track to meet the goals.
Commitments are one thing, but actions are another.
Looking at the G20 member countries, most of whom are a part of the Agreement and have made public commitments to reducing emissions, the trends are concerning.
G20 countries drive global trends. Why? Because their emissions account for about ¾ of global emissions. Where the G20 countries go, the world follows.
Pledges are broken down into two categories: pledges for 2020, and pledges for beyond 2020.
Of the G20 countries, seven of them are on track to reach their 2020 pledges:
- The European Union (considered one combined pledge)
Two of the G20 countries are not on track:
- The Republic of Korea
And the rest of them are considered “uncertain”:
- South Africa
- The United States
Now, some of these countries are expected to exceed their pledges. If this holds true, then as a collective, the G20 countries are on track to achieve the 2020 commitments as a whole.
The post-2020 pledges are a little more concerning. Six are on track:
Eight of the countries are not on track:
- The European Union
- The Republic of Korea
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- The United States
And two of the are labeled “uncertain”:
In this case, the G20 countries are not on track to hit the post-2020 goal as a collective. They would need to cut emissions by another 2.5 gigatonnes by 2030 to do so.
Implementation of NDCs needs to increase, and the NDCs need to strengthen as well.
This all comes down to ambition, and it has to be done quickly.
The Emissions Gap Report offers some ways in which the goals can still be reached. Countries can add more aggressive targets for emissions reduction, including targets for converting to renewable energy. They can also push to strengthen their NDCs to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Existing policies should be more aggressive as well, especially those related to renewable energy and other energy efficiency guidelines. There are other policies that offer promising results if implemented, but they have not yet been adopted. This includes carbon pricing and cutting back on fossil fuel subsidies.
The Emissions Gap Report is an important indicator and tool that countries can use as we work together to correct the global warming epidemic. Let’s push our government representatives to take these reports seriously, and call for legislation and opportunities for people to reduce our impact on the environment.