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The World Is On Track For “Catastrophic” Climate Change, UN Report Finds

“We are far off track,” one expert said.

Posted on November 27, 2018, at 10:01 a.m. ET

A climate march in Paris.
Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

A climate march in Paris.

Countries across the world need to do more, so much more, to rein in greenhouse gas emissions in the next two decades to prevent catastrophic global warming, according to a United Nations report released today.

“Even if the nations of the world live up to their current commitments, that will likely result in global warming of around 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” wrote Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the UN Environment Programme, in the report’s foreword. “That’s a number that would be catastrophic — and fatal for many small island states and coastal areas.”

The 2018 Emissions Gap Report is the annual tally of country-level climate goals. Similar to past years, the analysis shows a gap between what countries have pledged to do or have already done and what’s still needed to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the temperature goal of the Paris climate agreement.

“The main storyline of the Gap Report has been quite consistent: We are far off track,” Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the environmental nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told BuzzFeed News.

The United Nations report is the latest of several sobering climate reports published in recent months. Last Friday, for example, the US government released a sweeping overview of how climate change is already hurting the economy. (President Donald Trump then denounced the findings by his administration’s own scientists and other outside experts.)

And in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a bombshell report that found even in the most ideal scenario, with future warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, many dire climate impacts are inescapable.

We need to look at the United Nations report alongside the IPCC one, Diringer said. “They are two sides of a pretty dismal equation: One documents the grave risks of warming; the other documents how far we are from the path to avoid those risks,” he said.

Together, Diringer said, they offer “the clearest picture yet of the need for action.”

Keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, per the new United Nations report, requires global greenhouse emissions to peak soon, ideally by 2020.

Instead, emissions are still climbing, and there’s no end in sight. Global emissions were at a record high in 2017, hitting 53.5 gigatons of what’s called the “carbon dioxide equivalent.” Limiting future warming to 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees would mean cutting this number by about 25% or 55% by 2030, respectively.

Blowing through the 2030 deadline essentially locks in dire levels of warming. “If the emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is very plausible that the goal of a well-below 2 degree C temperature increase is also out of reach,” the new report found.

According to Philip Drost, the report’s lead coordinator and a United Nations official, one of the report’s key takeaways is: “The emissions gap is much bigger than last year.”

This is only partly because emissions went up last year. Another factor has to do with the IPCC report from October, which found countries cannot rely as much on future technologies to suck carbon dioxide out the air as we previously thought.

“We have to mitigate more emissions,” Drost told BuzzFeed News. “We cannot rely on future technologies that just take away the carbon dioxide from the air.”

Looking at the G20 countries, for example, shows many of the world’s largest economies are behind on their Paris pledges. Those falling short on their “Nationally Determined Contributions” include Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and the US.

In 2015, the US pledged to reduce its emissions by at least 26% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels, as part of the Paris climate pact. But President Trump has vowed to pull out of this agreement, and the US is not on track to meet these emissions limits, especially as his administration aggressively rolls back pollution rules.

It’s currently uncertain whether Mexico and Indonesia will meet their targets, according to the new report. Meanwhile, six of the big countries — Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, Russia, and Turkey — are expected to meet or surpass their targets. This may simply reflect low ambition in their emissions goals, the report said.

The report also “makes a really loud call” for countries to increase their climate pledges, according to Kelly Levin, a report author and senior associate within the World Resources Institute’s global climate program, and provides examples on how to do it, from boosting electricity that comes from renewable sources to expanding electric vehicle use.

Beyond country emissions, the 2018 report assessed the climate goals of companies, cities, and other “non state and subnational actors.” Although they’ve only made modest climate goals to date, the report found, they have the potential to bridge the emissions gap.

“The message is clear: we need to make an almost existential change, the solutions are there, and we have no excuse,” United Nations’ Msuya wrote in the report.

The new report comes a week before thousands of diplomats and other climate experts will meet in Katowice, Poland, for the next round of global climate talks to finalize the rules of the Paris climate agreement.


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