UN Progress Report on Emissions; COVID Effects and Opportunities

By: Patty L. Buchanan

The United Nations Environmental Program published a report this week analyzing global progress on reducing emissions, entitled the Emissions Gap Report 2020 (the Report).  It’s mostly distressing news, with a few bright spots.  Specifically, the Report considers how we are doing in meeting our 2030 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reduction goals.  It focuses on the gap between “where we are likely to be and where we need to be.”  The Report’s analysis is framed, in large part, around the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries under the Paris Agreement.  It asks, “Are we on track to bridging the gap?”  It concludes, “Absolutely not.”

Yikes, this is frightening!  It brings me to despair.

Then, the Report delves into the issue on everybody’s mind.  What effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on carbon emissions?  Have the economic downturns and greatly reduced mobility had any positive impact on GHGs that have been accumulating in the atmosphere?  Will the economics around the pandemic recovery provide us with tailwinds in meeting our carbon reduction goals or will we return to our familiar destructive ways?  Does the UN Environmental Program have any thoughts about the relevance of the Croton100 and CURE100 framework?  (A teaser here:  YES, Croton100 and CURE100 are ideal responses to our challenges!)  Read on to find out more.

This 12-page Report makes 14 succinct points.  It is chock full of quotable quotes, spiffy graphs, some complicated climate predictions, transportation GHG data, and it delivers some simple take-aways.  I’ll focus on the basics, breaking down the complicated points to leave you with some simple take-aways.

Image Credit: UN Environment Programme, Emissions Gap Report 2020

The Report starts by affirming what many of us probably already know:  GHG emissions continued to grow again in 2017, 2018 and 2019, which means we are continuing to go in the wrong direction.  These emissions are creating a warmer world with a “continuing rise in extreme weather events, including wildfires and hurricanes, and in the melting of glaciers and ice at both poles.” 

After a brief discussion of the top national emitters (yes, the U.S. is on the list of the top four global emitters, and it is still the highest per capita emitter), it says that growth in global emissions is slowing.  Still growing, but not as fast.  

The good news is that CO2 emissions could decrease by about 7 per cent in 2020, compared to 2019 emission levels due to COVID-19.  The Report emphasizes that “The COVID-19 crisis offers only a short-term reduction in global emissions and will not contribute significantly to emissions reductions by 2030 unless countries pursue an economic recovery that incorporates strong decarbonization.”

Image Credit: UN Environmental Programme, Emissions Gap Report 2020

Brace yourself for the really bad news:  Atmospheric concentrations of GHGs continue to rise.  Simply put, slowing the growth of GHG emissions is not enough, UN Scientists warn us that “sustained reductions in emissions to reach net-zero CO2 are required to stabilize global warming.”

According to the Report, the most significant and encouraging climate policy development of 2020 is the growing number of countries that are committing to net-zero emissions goals by around mid-century.  Example: net zero pledges by South Korea (2050), China (2060), the Biden plan in the U.S. (2050), European Union (2050), Japan (2050) and Canada (2050).  The authors caution that to “remain feasible and credible, it is imperative that these commitments are urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action and are reflected in the NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions].”  The United States is not on track to achieve our NDCs and therefore, according to the Report, further action is required.  Overall, current “NDCs remain seriously inadequate to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and would lead to temperature rise of at least 3°C by the end of the century” if we do not take rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.  This level of temperature rise would bring catastrophic harm and death to hundreds of millions of sentient beings throughout the world.  The Report stresses that a “dramatic strengthening of ambition is needed if the Paris Agreement goals are to be achieved.”  It further explains that “failure to significantly reduce global emissions by 2030 will make it impossible to keep global warming below 1.5°C.”

The overall emissions gap (the difference between where we are globally and where we should be if we are to achieve atmospheric/climatic needs) has not been narrowed compared with 2019.  This part of the Report highlights that we are not doing enough to lower our emissions nor acting fast enough to stave off the worst impacts of global warming.

So, what about the COVID-19 carbon reduction dividend?  The Report says, “COVID-19 containment measures have significantly reduced global GHG emissions in 2020.  However, unless these are followed by economic rescue and recovery measures that support a low-carbon transition, this dip in global GHG emissions is estimated to result in no more than a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050, which by then is expected to exceed 1.5°C.”  The UN Environmental Program further explains that so far, “the opening for using fiscal rescue and recovery measures to stimulate the economy while simultaneously accelerating a low-carbon transition has largely been missed.  It is not too late to seize future opportunities, without which achieving the Paris Agreement goals is likely to slip further out of reach.”

The Report provides some insights on the “fiscal rescue and recovery measures [that] can simultaneously support rapid, employment-intensive and cost-effective economic recovery and a low-carbon transition.”  These measures include the obvious: support renewable energy projects, nature based-solutions including large scale landscape restoration and reforestation, research and development of zero-emissions technologies, etc.  It also points out that the converse results will befall us if we were to embrace waivers or rollbacks of environmental regulations, bailouts of fossil fuel intensive companies without conditions for low-carbon transition or environmental sustainability (such as airlines, internal combustion automotive companies), etc.

The Report stresses that we must tackle domestic and international shipping and aviation emissions, which “currently account for around 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions and are projected to increase significantly.”  These are especially pernicious sectors because “international emissions from shipping and aviation are not covered under the [all important] NDCs [which provide some country-specific accountability for emissions], and based on current trends, are projected to consume between 60 and 220 per cent of allowable CO2emissions by 2050 under IPCC illustrative 1.5°C scenarios.”  Solutions to this quandary, according to the Report, are “changes in technology, operations, fuel use and demand all need to be driven by new policies.”

The United Nations Scientists leave us with something to celebrate; the Report wraps up by validating the Croton100/CURE100 framework!  It explains, “Lifestyle changes are a prerequisite for sustaining reductions in GHG emissions and for bridging the emissions gap.  Around two thirds of global emissions are linked to private household activities according to consumption-based accounting [which our Carbon Tracker uses]. Reducing emissions through lifestyle changes requires changing both broader systemic conditions and individual actions.” 

In sum, it says that while policies have an important role to play, individual actions are also important.  Its recommendations align with Croton100/CURE100 core ethos, “it is necessary for citizens to be active participants in changing their lifestyles through taking steps to reduce personal emissions and fostering societal change as consumers, citizens, owners of assets and members of communities.”  Like Croton100/CURE100, it recognizes that “the participation of civil society is necessary to bring about wider changes in the social, cultural, political and economic systems in which people live.”

This UN Environmental Report concludes by emphasizing that “equity is central to addressing lifestyles.  The emissions of the richest 1 per cent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 per cent.”  Putting this telling statistic in context, we are instructed that the “[COVID] lockdown period in many countries may be long enough to establish new, lasting routines if supported by longer-term measures.

Image Credit: UN Environment Programme, Emissions Gap Report 2020

In planning recovery form COVID-19, governments have an opportunity to catalyze low-carbon lifestyle changes by disrupting entrenched practices.”

Call to Action:  What can you do about this Report?

·  Follow the recommendations of the authors, reduce your GHG emissions; use CURE100’s Carbon Tracker to guide you in your carbon step-downs.

·  Engage in education and advocacy about reducing GHG emissions at every opportunity.

·  Share the report with policy makers, your friends, family, and businesses you patronize to engage everyone with an action plan consistent with the recommendations in this Report.

·  Share this blog post with such people to spread the news:  We have an opportunity to leverage the tragedies of this pandemic to rebuild a safer and more just world, we must use this perilous moment in our history to right our carbon wrongs.

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