With world leaders gathering in Madrid next week for their annual bargaining session over how to avert a climate catastrophe, the latest assessment issued by the United Nations said today that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising dangerously.
“The summary findings are bleak,” said the annual assessment, which is produced by the U.N. Environment Program and is formally known as the Emissions Gap Report. Countries have failed to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions despite repeated warnings from scientists, with China and the United States, the two biggest polluters, further increasing their emissions last year. The result, the authors added, is that “deeper and faster cuts are now required.”
As if to underscore the gap between reality and diplomacy, the international climate negotiations, scheduled to begin next week, are not even designed to ramp up pledges by world leaders to cut their countries’ emissions. That deadline is still a year away.
Rather, this year’s meetings are intended to hammer out the last remaining rules on how to implement the 2015 Paris climate accord, in which every country pledged to rein in greenhouse gases, with each setting its own targets and timetables.
“Madrid is an opportunity to get on course to get the speed and trajectory right,” said Rachel Kyte, a former U.N. climate diplomat who is now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “What the Emissions Gap Report does is take away any remaining plausible deniability that the current trajectory is not good enough.”
The world’s 20 richest countries, responsible for more than three-fourths of worldwide emissions, must take the biggest, swiftest steps to move away from fossil fuels, the report emphasized. The richest country of all, the United States, however, has formally begun to pull out of the Paris accord.
Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5% every year over the last decade, according to the annual assessment. The opposite must happen if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including more intense droughts, stronger storms and widespread hunger by mid-century. To stay within relatively safe limits, emissions must decline sharply, by 7.6% every year, between 2020 and 2030, the report warned.
Separately, the World Meteorological Organization reported Monday that emissions of three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — have all swelled in the atmosphere since the mid-18th century.
“We are sleepwalking toward a climate catastrophe and need to wake up and take urgent action,” said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, on a phone call with reporters today after the publication of the report.
Even if every country fulfills its current pledges under the Paris Agreement — and many, including the U.S., Brazil and Australia, are currently not on track to do so — the Emissions Gap Report found average temperatures are on track to rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.75 degrees Fahrenheit) from the baseline average temperature at the start of the industrial age.
According to scientific models, that kind of temperature rise sharply increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, the accelerated melting of glaciers and swelling seas — all endangering the lives of billions of people.
The Paris Agreement resolved to hold the increase in global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius; last year, a U.N.-backed panel of scientists said the safer limit was to keep it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
There are many ways to reduce emissions: quitting the combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel; switching to renewable energy like solar and wind power; moving away from gas- and diesel-guzzling cars; and halting deforestation.
In fact, many countries are headed in the wrong direction. A separate analysis released this month looked at how much coal, oil and natural gas the world’s nations have said they expect to produce and sell through 2030. If all those fossil fuels were ultimately extracted and burned, the report found, countries would collectively miss their climate pledges, as well as the global 2-degree-Celsius target, by an even larger margin than previously thought.
A number of countries around the world, including Canada and Norway, have made plans to reduce emissions at home while expanding fossil-fuel production for sale abroad, that report noted.
“At a global level, it doesn’t add up,” said Michael Lazarus, a lead author of the report and director of the Stockholm Environment Institute’s U.S. Center.
To date, he noted, discussions on whether and how to curb the production of fossil fuels have been almost entirely absent from international climate talks.
The International Energy Agency recently singled out the proliferation of sport utility vehicles, noting that the surge of SUVs, which consume more gasoline than conventional cars, could wipe out much of the oil savings from a nascent electric-car boom.
“For 10 years, the Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm — and for 10 years, the world has only increased its emissions,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “There has never been a more important time to listen to the science. Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heat waves, storms and pollution.”
The pressure on world leaders to pivot away from fossil fuels and rebuild the engine of the global economy comes at a time when the appetite for international cooperation is extremely low, nationalist sentiments are on the rise, and several world leaders have deep ties to the industries that are the biggest sources of planet-warming emissions.
If there is any good news in the report, it is that the current trajectory is not as dire as it was before countries around the world started taking steps to cut their emissions. The 2015 Emissions Gap Report said that, without any climate policies at all, the world was likely to face around 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
Coal use is declining sharply, especially in the United States and Western Europe, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief. Renewable energy is expanding fast, though not nearly as fast as necessary. And city and state governments around the world, including in the United States, are rolling out stricter rules on tailpipe pollution from cars.
Young people are protesting by the millions in rich and poor countries alike. Even in the United States, with its persistent denialist movement, how to deal with climate change is a resonant issue in the presidential campaign.