UN report: two years left to reduce emissions and avoid global disaster, and we probably won't make it

UN report: two years left to reduce emissions and avoid global disaster, and we probably won't make it
The UN has released a dire global stocktake of the state of play to reach the Paris accord targets in time to prevent global temperatures rising by 1.5C. We have two years left to do it and the target will probably be missed, leading to an environment disaster of biblical proportions. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 11, 2023

We have two years to fix the climate and reach the Paris accord emission targets, according to a UN global stocktake report, and we are not going to make it.

“The global stocktake is unfolding in a critical decade for climate action,” the report says. “Global emissions need to be nearly halved by 2030 for the world to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, transformational adaptation is also needed to help communities and ecosystems cope with the climate impacts that are already occurring and are expected to intensify.”

The report is the most comprehensive report yet on the state of play in the effort to reduce emissions and ensure global warming is contained to a 1.5C rise, to prevent irreversible damage to the climate that will unleash untold damage on food supplies, cause extreme weather patterns, rising sea levels and mass migration flows as parts of the earth become uninhabitable.

The alarm bells are ringing loudly and the UN says the world is already badly off track. In March this year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest Synthesis Report, which summarises all the scientific reports it has published during its sixth assessment cycle – the first comprehensive report for nine years.

“It highlighted just how far off track the world is, reinforcing last year’s UN Climate Change report, which stated the combined climate pledges of 194 Parties under the Paris Agreement could put the world on track for around 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century,” the UN stocktake report said. “The science is unequivocal: a course correction is needed. And it needs to happen now.”

Too little, too late

Eleven leading counties have reduced emissions, but as the Lancet recently said in a separate report, none of them are anywhere near on track to meet their Paris obligations. Even the best performing countries need to treble or quadruple their efforts to hit the goals.

“In order to keep 1.5C within reach we need deep and immediate emission cuts across all sectors and regions. We know what we have to do. Now we must boost political will to make that course correction through action and support possible,” Simon Stiell, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary, said in the UN report.

And as the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported earlier this year, after falling dramatically during the coronavirus pandemic, emissions have bounced back to reach new all-time highs.

The report says that countries have not ignored the 2015 Paris agreement but “much more is needed now on all fronts”. While the report calls for drastic measures that will be extremely difficult to implement politically, the report notes that if sufficient action is taken quickly the disaster can be averted. “There are now sufficient cost-effective opportunities to address the 2030 emissions gap,” it says.

But that means dramatically “scaling up renewable energy and phasing out all unabated fossil fuels.” The destruction of forests and reducing methane emissions are also crucial elements.

Asleep at the wheel

To achieve these goals, more general sweeping changes will have to be made to the global financial-industrial system, which requires a complete overhaul, and huge changes of lifestyle are needed. That will mean investing “trillions of dollars to meet global investment needs.”

For example, the report recommends that developed countries become vegetarian as meat consumption needs to fall by 80% as one of the big contributors to methane emissions, which are 80 times more deadly a greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide.

Yet governments are asleep at the wheel and although everyone has acknowledged the problem and launched green programmes, none of the governments have committed anywhere near enough resources to tackling the problem.

The technology and finance to end the climate crisis exist: the greatest barrier is lack of political will. The report says: “Creativity and innovation in policymaking and international cooperation is essential.” Green policies need to be put in place at all levels of policy making, yet that is still “extremely rare”, the report says.

The report also calls out big business, which is essential to the process, for constantly “greenwashing” its efforts, and to clean up their act. Currently there is little monitoring or regulation to enforce the implementation of ESG policies at the corporate level, which remains largely a voluntary effort.

Moreover, co-ordinated global action is missing. When Russia attacked Ukraine, a meeting at the Ramstein air base in Germany brought together most of Europe’s leaders and a comprehensive military support programme was worked out to arm Ukraine in its defence and billions of euros of support was committed. The US alone has already spent over $100bn on support for Ukraine and the EU has committed billions a year in a multiyear programme of financial and military support that will run to 2027 at least.

As the eco-system has clearly started to collapse as Europe endures its hottest summer ever and extreme weather conditions have devastated parts of Europe with flash floods and raging storms, there has yet to be a “climate Ramstein.” The closest thing on the agenda is an UN Environment Conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week in New York. However, only those countries that have made progress with reducing emissions will be allowed to speak and countries like the UK have decided to stay away for “fear of embarrassing themselves,” The Guardian recently reported, after it released an environment action plan the UN derided as “very weak.”

There is a “rapidly narrowing window” for governments to phase out fossil fuels if CO2 emissions are to peak in 2025 and then fall dramatically from there. But currently emissions are still rising at an unsustainable pace. There is a gap of 20 to 23 gigatonnes of CO2 between the cuts needed by 2030 to limit global temperatures to 1.5C and the world’s current emissions trajectory.

Low hanging fruit

Despite the alarmist tone of the 47-page UN report it has failed to set out in detail and “name and shame” which countries are falling behind, nor does it contain specific recommendations directed at particular countries or regions on how they can reduce emissions faster.

Fossil fuels are highlighted as the main culprit in a brief but clear statement in the key section six of the report that calls for a reduction in hydrocarbon use and boosting renewables.

“Achieving net zero CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions requires systems transformations across all sectors and contexts, including scaling up renewable energy while phasing out all unabated fossil fuels, ending deforestation, reducing non-CO2 emissions and implementing both supply and demand side measures,” the report says, effectively calling for a total overhaul of the world’s energy system.

One of the low hanging fruits to reduce the use of fossil fuels is to end the system of subsidies that fossil fuels enjoy in many markets. An IMF analysis last year found the total subsidies for oil, gas and coal in 2022 were $7 trillion, equivalent to 7% of global GDP and almost double what the world spends on education. While governments have promised to end the subsidies little action has been taken. Last year alone Europe spent over €1 trillion on direct energy subsidies to protect consumers from the soaring price of gas that decupled as a result of the gas wars with Russia. The G20 poured a record $1.4 trillion into fossil fuel subsidies in 2022, according to an estimate by the International Institute for Sustainable Development think-tank.

The subsidies may have protected consumers from the shock of spiking prices, but they also disincentivise consumers from reducing their energy use.

In addition, there are indirect subsidies that make up 80% of the total that deal with cleaning up the damage caused by fossil fuels through climate change and air pollution.

The IMF analysis found petrol and other oil products accounted for half of explicit subsidies in 2022, with coal accounting for 30% and fossil gas 20%. The biggest subsidisers of fossil fuels were China, the US, Russia, the EU and India, The Guardian reports. The analysis calculated that ending fossil fuel subsidies would cut emissions by 34% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels.

Ending the energy subsidies should be the centrepiece of reforming the energy system to move away from fossil fuels, yet these reforms have been largely ignored so far.

Phasing out fossil fuels completely remains hugely controversial and a serious attempt to force the measure through is likely to be blocked by multiple governments. An attempt to push through just this measure at last year’s COP27 failed and as COP28 will be held in the UAE, a major oil producer, so far the COP28 literature released ahead of the summit has avoided the subject completely.

However, not only is that not happening, in Europe fuel use is going in the opposite direction as a result of the war in Ukraine. Germany has followed through on the controversial decision to close its six nuclear power plants (NPPs) and has restarted its coal-fired plants to replace lost Russian gas imports. Germany is currently burning an all-time record amount of coal to keep the economy powered. And it’s not just Germany: Turkey overtook Germany and Poland in June to become Europe's top producer of electricity generated at coal-fired plants.

COP28 last chance

The global stocktake will form the basis of negotiations at the next UN climate summit, Cop28, to be held in Dubai in November.

The stocktake report will be the centrepiece of the summit which is the next, and probably the last, chance to save the planet from a devastating environmental disaster.

The global stocktake is not the only key deliverable of COP28. The conference also needs to make progress in several other workstreams: hammering out the details of the loss and damage finance facility, driving towards a global goal on finance, accelerating both an energy and a just transition, closing the massive emissions gap, just to name a few, the report says.

“The success of the global stocktake will ultimately determine the success of COP28. It is the defining moment of this year, this COP and – as one of the only two stocktaking moments in this decisive decade of climate action – ultimately pivotal to whether or not we meet our 2030 goals,” the UN report said.