Nearly 200 countries have pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis, but there is still a huge gap between what’s been promised and what scientists say is needed, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme.
With just five days left until leaders meet at the UN’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, dozens of nations have not yet officially updated their pledges to reduce emissions, as they are supposed to do under the rules of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Of the G20 countries, which account for 80% of the world’s emissions, only six nations have formally increased their targets. The report also found that six G20 nations, including the United States, never met their old targets. The others were Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico.
The planet has already warmed 1.2 degrees, scientists say. The latest set of global climate pledges, according to the report released Tuesday, fall far short of what’s necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a critical threshold that scientists say the world should remain below.
The report found that new and updated pledges on emissions will only cut an additional 7.5% by 2030, but a 55% cut is needed to meet the goal of containing warming to 1.5 degrees.
Under countries’ current targets, the world will continue to warm to 2.7 degrees, according to UNEP.
“Countries have stretched, but they’ve not stretched enough,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, told CNN. “Many of them sort of kick the can down the road, and we need to see not pledges anymore we actually need to see real action.”
The annual “emissions gap” report outlines the difference between what countries have pledged and what more needs to be done. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, UNEP reports the world needs to slash current emissions in half in the next eight years.
“We’re not nearly where we want to be,” Andersen said. “We want to be optimistic and say the window is still open, we can still make it — but it’s closing very fast. The reality is we must make this happen in this current decade.”
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries submit “Nationally Determined Contributions,” or NDCs, a term that will come up often as world leaders and climate negotiators gather in Glasgow for COP26 — a UN-brokered climate summit — beginning October 31. The NDCs lay out each country’s planned cuts in emissions in order to reach the Paris Agreement goal, which was to limit warming to at least 2 degrees, but ideally 1.5 degrees.
The UN’s interim NDC registry shows there are currently 192 parties to the Paris Agreement, all of which have submitted their first NDCs. Eritrea and Iraq are the only countries that have not yet signed on to the Paris Agreement, but have submitted initial NDCs.
All eyes will be on wealthy G20 countries at COP26, particularly the world’s largest fossil fuel emitters. The G20 countries are responsible for around 80% of the world’s emissions, according to Andersen.
Three of the top emitters — the United States, India, and the European Union — have pledged to reduce their emissions by 2030. But China has no plan to reduce emissions before 2030, instead committing to reaching peak emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.
The emissions gap report comes on the heels of a summer packed with climate change-fueled disasters around the world: While the US has been battered by wildfires, worsened by unrelenting drought, flooding events and hurricanes, China and Germany experienced deadly flooding events as Southern Europe battled wildfires of its own.
At the Major Economies Forum in September, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the upcoming climate summit, during which world leaders will meet to discuss emissions targets, has a “high risk of failure.”
“It is clear that everyone must assume their responsibilities,” Guterres said.
Even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country is hosting COP26, said Monday that success at the talks will be “touch and go.”
Some countries have announced other goals, including net-zero dates, but those targets are ambiguous and outside the official NDCs. Achieving net-zero emissions, where the amount of greenhouse gas removed from the atmosphere equals what is emitted, is critical to global climate commitments. UNEP reports that these actions, if implemented, could potentially shave off a half a degree of warming.
Though tension between the two countries has been running high, the US and China agreed in the spring to cooperate on the climate crisis. Without accounting for population, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, followed by the United States, the EU, India, Russia and Japan.
But smaller countries can also make an impact: Emissions from the rest of the world combined exceeds China’s total output of carbon dioxide.
Developing nations are those most likely to endure the worse effects of the climate crisis, despite the small amount they contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Andersen said this is why climate finance — funding for developing nations to fight the climate crisis — is vital.
“Those in poorer countries are going to suffer the very most, so ensuring that there’s a degree of equity and a degree of global solidarity for adaptation finance is also critical,” she said.
While slashing carbon dioxide emissions is critical, the emissions gap report also emphasized the need to control a more insidious culprit: methane.
Methane, an invisible, odorless gas that’s more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is the main component of the natural gas people now use to fuel stoves and heat homes. It’s also pumped into the atmosphere in large amounts by landfills, livestock and the oil and gas industry.
However, it has a shorter life span in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide — only 12 years compared to roughly hundreds for carbon dioxide. Scientists say that because of it’s short-term life, immediate and strict cuts to methane would limit warming faster than curbing carbon emissions.
Andersen said in order to close the emissions gap, the world needs to reimagine and reinvent all energy and transportation sectors.
“It means a fundamental overhaul of the sectors,” she said. “The good news is that there are solutions right there, at our fingertips. We just need a few nudges and policy guardrails that sets the tone.”
And while there’s still room to change the course of the climate crisis, Andersen added action is needed by 2030. Unless fossil fuel emissions are slashed quickly, extreme weather will increasingly be in Earth’s future.
“This is possible. We can do this, but it won’t happen without real leadership,” Andersen said. “And that’s where multilateral agreements matter. It will take the leadership of everyone, including the smallest of countries, but it will particularly take steady, firm, and supportive leadership by the G20 and other wealthy economies.”