‘No Credible Pathway’ to Limit Warming to 1.5°C, Systemic Transformation Only Option to Avert Climate Collapse
Two deer take refuge in a river during a wild fire in Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, United States.

The existential project to save the planet set out by the 2016 Paris Agreement is in tatters. There is currently “no credible pathway” to limit increases in global temperatures to the 1.5°C degree target detailed in the accords, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) said in its global emissions gap report released Thursday.

The chance of temporarily exceeding 1.5°C has risen steadily since 2015, when it was close to zero.  That probability has increased to nearly 50% for the 2022-2026 period. 

The language of the UNEP report stands in stark contrast to the diplomatic assessment by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat released on Wednesday.

The UNFCCC report refers to “glimmers of hope,” noting that progress over the last year shows “a strong signal that the world is starting to aim for net-zero emissions.” But the UNEP does not mince words.

“Inadequate progress on climate action means the rapid transformation of societies is the only option,” the report states. “This lack of progress leaves the world hurtling towards a temperature rise far above the Paris Agreement goals.”

Despite a year of devastating climate-driven disasters, updated pledges by the international community since COP26 in Glasgow represent less than a 1% reduction in projected 2030 greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions in 2021 were also likely the highest on record, breaking the ceiling set by 2019 levels, the report found.

To get on track to limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the world would need to cut 45 per cent of current greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

If countries fully implement all present and future plans to reduce emissions, and additional net-zero commitments, the world will be on track for a 1.8°C temperature increase by the end of the century. But even this scenario is “not credible” given the snail’s pace of progress, the UNEP said.

“We are headed towards global catastrophe,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at a press conference accompanying the release of the report. “Our world cannot afford any more greenwashing, fake movers or late movers.”

Current policies set the world on pace for global warming of 2.8°C by the end of the century. The two realistic scenarios laid out in the report – in which countries follow through on their “nationally determined commitments” – reduce warming to 2.6°C and 2.4°C.

“We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP. “Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating the climate disaster.”

A decimal can make all the difference


Temperatures during the last ice age, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, were an average of just 6 degrees cooler than today.

These temperature discrepancies can appear insignificant, but even minute shifts in the earth’s temperature have drastic impacts. At the peak of the last ice age, when glaciers covered about half of North America, Europe, South America and many parts of Asia, average temperatures were only 6°C degrees colder than today.

“In your own personal experience that might not sound like a big difference, but it’s a huge change,” said Jessica Tierney, primary author of the report on ice age temperatures.

Warming to 2°C, compared with 1.5°C, is estimated to increase the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050. As the most affected regions are among the poorest in the world, possessing little ability to adapt on their own, the impacts will be devastating.

“Nature has been telling us all year, through deadly floods, storms and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gasses, and stop doing it fast,” Andersen said. “Every fraction of a degree matters.”

For millions, the climate crisis is already here

Expansion of extremely hot regions in a business-as-usual climate scenario. Black and hashed areas represent unlivable hot zones. Absent migration, that area would be home to 3.5 billion people in 2070

Climate change discourse often unfolds in future-oriented language, but the consequences of the present 1.1°C degree increase in global temperatures are already hitting millions, and many are being forced to flee.

Amid unpredictable monsoon rainfall and increasingly strong droughts, more than eight million people in Southeast Asia have moved toward the Middle East, Europe, and North America, the World Bank found. Droughts and crop failures have impacted millions of rural people in the African Sahel, too, creating streams of internal displacement towards the coasts and cities.

And this is just the beginning. A groundbreaking study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that by 2070, up to 19% of land currently inhabited by people could become unlivable hot zones, akin to the Sahara, placing billions – one of every three people alive – in climate situations that will force them to leave. 

Should the flight away from hot climates reach the scale that current research suggests, it will amount to a vast remapping of the world’s populations, a joint investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica reports.

And the visible impacts of climate shifts are already staggering. Bangladesh, a country of 168 million people, now has over 10 million climate refugees – and an estimated 2,000 people move to its capital, Dhaka, every day, according to the Mayor’s Migration Council.

People who have lived in the coastal areas of Bangladesh for generations are migrating to escape flooding, and the government predicts that by 2050, one in every seven Bangladeshi citizens will be displaced by climate change. 

Financial hurdles present big challenges

June floods in Pakistan killed 1,717 people and the health impacts of the devastation are still unfolding.

In neighboring Pakistan, historic floods in June devastated millions, killed 1,717, and placed the country at the center of a developing international dialogue set to define the upcoming COP27 climate conference about who should foot the bill for the consequences of our shifting climate.

Cycles triggered by natural disasters and their rebuilding efforts trapped many countries in inescapable debt before the question of infrastructure investment for a clean transition even entered the conversation.

According to the IMF, 60% of low-income countries are in or at risk of debt distress due to climate change-induced events. A study by the World Weather Attribution group showed that climate change contributed to up to 50% of the rains that made this August the wettest on record in Sindh, the region of Pakistan where the floods struck.

“It is imperative to reform financial systems so that indebtedness is not a barrier for access to finance when countries are in need,” Andersen said. “These institutions were created in the shadow of the Second World War, but we are in a different time now. There is homework to be done in the halls of 193 capitals.”

As disasters hit populations in vulnerable regions, they also take a significant toll on the development journey of the countries they call home. All progress towards larger development goals can be wiped out overnight, and countries seeking funds to develop are forced to take out loans to pay for the cost of recovery – trapping them in an interminable cycle.

Pakistan is preparing to issue a request for new loans to rebuild infrastructure that would survive the extreme weather patterns, an effort it estimates will cost $30bn.  

“If you look at the numbers, it is the climate event of the century, not just for Pakistan but for the whole world,” Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister told the Financial Times. “It surpassed all numbers for climate events, and it is now creating a catastrophic health crisis.”

For governments grappling with the human, health, and economic impacts of increasingly frequent natural disasters, green energy is just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

COP27: slim hopes for urgent action amid divisions over funding responsibilities

COP27 will be held from 6 to 18 November 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

As alarm sirens sound across the world, hopes for a watershed moment in the international community’s approach to combating the climate crisis at next week’s COP27 in Egypt remain slim.

The event will unfold against the backdrop of compounding energy, food and cost of living crises exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, coupled with the deep divisions around who should be responsible for funding the energy transition.

In addition to money for adapting to a shifting climate, low- and middle-income countries require technical assistance and investment to facilitate the envisioned transition directly to sustainable energy sources. The UNEP coordinates a technology sharing mechanism, but getting financing on the table is difficult.

“Climate finance structure today is biased against climate-vulnerable countries. The more vulnerable you are, the less climate finance you receive,” Kevin Chika Urama, chief economist at the African Development Bank, told Reuters.

Leaders of impacted countries are keenly aware of the threats posed by climate change, but the question of how to balance emissions targets with lifting people out of poverty has no easy solution. For them, energy is not a simple question of emissions: it is one of poverty, health, and survival. 

A disproportionate burden


“For Africa, the problem of energy poverty is as important as our climate ambitions,” Nigerian Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo said in a video address announcing his country’s aim to raise an initial US$10 billion in funding to implement its energy transition plan ahead of the conference. “Energy use is crucial for almost every conceivable aspect of development — wealth, health, nutrition, water, infrastructure, education and life expectancy.”

The perceived hypocrisy displayed in recent months by countries that have fashioned themselves as leaders of the green energy transition have made this conversation even more difficult.

Since the onset of Russia’s invasion, Europe has raced to import as much natural gas from Africa as possible to shore up its domestic supplies. It has provided no additional funding for projects that would allow the world’s poorest continent to burn more gas at home.

Meanwhile, in South Sudan, only 6% of people have access to modern energy. “Energy poverty and injustice is real, but we need to make sure that energy expansion is done sustainably,” Andersen said.

Recent IEA findings estimated the exploitation of all proven natural gas reserves in Africa would amount to an increase of just 0.5% in Africa’s global emissions burden, to 3.5% up from 3.0%. In July, the EU voted to classify natural gas as ‘green’, freeing up public subsidies and greenlighting new infrastructure projects set to extend the bloc’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Together, G20 countries contribute 75% of greenhouse gas emissions annually, and any consensus will likely depend on new commitments from rich countries to invest in the climate transition beyond their own borders.

“The worst impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change are being felt by developing countries – those least responsible for having caused it,” said Dr Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. “High-income countries must provide developing countries with the necessary financial and technical support for the equitable access to the clean energy their people need.”

Total systemic change is a big ask

The window to reach climate change goals is closing fast: inadequate progress on climate action makes rapid transformation of societies the only option, the UN said.

Though the future of the planet is at stake, success at COP27 appears unlikely. Multilateral negotiations – in the best of circumstances – are exceedingly complicated affairs. The EU and Canada spent over seven years negotiating a mutually beneficial trade deal, and it nearly collapsed at the last hurdle.

That a total transformation of global financial, food, electricity and financial systems is the requirement set out by the UNEP makes the stakes of COP27 as daunting as they appear unfeasible, the report acknowledges.

“The task facing the world is immense: not just to set more ambitious targets, but also to deliver on all commitments made,” it states. “This will require not just incremental sector-by-sector change, but wide-ranging, large-scale, rapid and systemic transformation. This will not be easy, given the many other pressures on policymakers at all levels.”

In this context, any progress will be welcomed.

“Even if we don’t meet our 2030 goals, we must strive to get as close as possible to 1.5°C,” said Andersen. “This means setting up the foundations of a net-zero future: one that will allow us to bring down temperature overshoots and deliver many other social and environmental benefits, like clean air, green jobs and universal energy access.”

The clock is ticking, but there’s a roadmap: energy, finance, building and food practices must change

UNEP roadmap for a sustainable transition outlined in the report.

If the UNEP report’s findings are dire, they are also constructive. The report is formatted as a roadmap for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in electricity supply, industry, transportation and buildings, providing a groundwork for launching towards a carbon-neutral future.

“The recommendations in today’s report are clear,” Secretary-General Guterres said. “End our reliance on fossil fuels. Avoid a lock-in of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Invest massively in renewables.”

And significant progress has already been made. The falling prices of renewable power sources like solar and wind make energy the closest sector to attaining the necessary transition outlined in the report. But while market prices have caught up and requisite technologies exist, the world is not transitioning to them fast enough.

On the other extreme, food systems are in critical need of an overhaul. The sector already accounts for one-third of all emissions, and if current practices remain in place, this is on track to double by 2050.

Global systemic change is a tall order, but “we have to try”

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, speaking to reporters on Thursday.

Without a systemic reform of the global financial system, the targets set out by the UNEP are unatainable: change requires capital.

The report estimates that an international transformation to a low-carbon future will require at least $4-6 trillion per year. For scale, the World Economic Forum estimates India’s transition to net-zero emissions will require $10 trillion in investment. Financial systems must play a crucial role in enabling the energy transition, Andersen said, and massive reform is required.

“There is a conversation that needs to take place in capitals across the world between the governors of central banks, ministers of finance, and their environmental or meteorology counterparts,” she said. “Unless these talks happen, and a broader understanding of how climate shifts hurt our chances of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals is understood, we will be stuck.”

Hopes for increased climate investment hinge on the successful communication of the win-win opportunity renewables present. Researchers at Stanford University found that while a global transition to 100% renewable energy sources would cost countries $73 trillion upfront, it would pay for itself in less than seven years and create 28.6 million more jobs. 

Decisions made today can define emissions trajectories for decades to come. If the international community does not act decisively, the window of opportunity will close by 2030.

“I don’t want to waste your time talking about the impacts of climate change, we all know they are going to get worse,” an impassioned Andersen told reporters. “Is it a tall order to transform our systems in just eight years? Yes. Can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions by so much in that timeframe? Perhaps not. But we must try.”

Image Credits: PNAS, OXFAM.

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