This year was meant to be a watershed moment in the fight against global warming. However, according to a recent UN Environment Programme assessment, the world’s governments are failing to meet the challenge.
The Emissions Gap Report 2021: The Heat Is On, issued on October 26, finds that existing promises to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming are still on pace to warm the globe by 2.7 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels by the end of the century.
Aiming for “net-zero emissions” by mid-century — a target recently stated by China, the US, and other nations but with no clear plans on how to achieve it — might cut warming to 2.2 degrees Celsius. However, U.N. officials acknowledged during a press conference announcing the report’s release that this still falls short of the target.
195 countries promised to decrease their emissions sufficiently to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 at a key summit in Paris in 2015 (SN: 12/12/15). As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, observed in 2018 (SN: 12/17/18), limiting global warming to merely 1.5 degrees Celsius would prevent many more disastrous impacts of climate change. Extreme weather events, worsened by human-caused climate change, now occur in every corner of the world, according to the IPCC’s newest report, which was issued in August, and warned that the window to reverse some of these impacts is shrinking (SN: 8/9/21).
Despite these serious warnings, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “the parties to the Paris Agreement are absolutely failing to keep [its] aim in reach.” “The age of half-measures and empty promises has to come to an end.”
The latest United Nations research comes only days before world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in 2021. The COP26 summit, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, is notable since it will be the first since the 2015 accord, in which signatories are anticipated to considerably increase their emission reduction targets.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been keeping an annual eye on the gap between current country promises to cut emissions and the Paris Agreement objective (SN: 11/26/19). 120 nations, accounting for slightly over half of global greenhouse gas emissions, declared new pledges to combat climate change by 2030 ahead of the COP26 summit.
New agreements move the world just marginally closer to where emissions must be by 2030 to meet warming objectives, according to the 2021 report. Total yearly emissions in 2030 would be 7.5 percent lower (about 55 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) with the revised promises than they would have been with last year’s pledges (about 59 gigatons). However, to stay on pace to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, emissions would have to be approximately 30% lower than the current targets, or around 39 gigatons per year. To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, emissions must be reduced by nearly 55 percent relative to current targets, to around 25 gigatons per year.
“I’m hoping that the collision of the science and the statistics in the gap analysis, and the voices of the people will promote a greater sense of urgency,” says Gabriel Filippelli, a geochemist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Filippelli, the editor of the American Geophysical Union magazine GeoHealth, and the editors in chief of the organization’s other publications submitted a statement in Geophysical Research Letters on October 26. They asked world leaders at COP26 to mitigate climate change’s “devastating repercussions” by promptly lowering global carbon emissions and transitioning to a green economy. The letter reads, “We are scientists, but we also have families and loved ones alongside our fellow residents on this planet.” “The moment has come to bridge the gap between scientist and citizen, mind and heart.”
According to Filippelli, publishing that request was a departure for some of the scientists. “For the last 20 to 30 years, we’ve been producing papers chronicling the train catastrophe of climate change,” he adds. “As you might guess, some individuals were a little uneasy behind the scenes since it strayed from the genuine science.” But, in the end, we decided that writing a genuine message that revealed our feelings was more impactful.”