Planet Faces Nearly 3°C Warming Without ‘Relentless’ Emissions Cuts, UN Report Finds
“Present trends are racing our planet down a dead-end 3C temperature rise,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday.

The world is on a trajectory to heat up by nearly 3°C this century unless governments take “relentless” action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report released Monday by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Emissions Gap report, an annual assessment by UNEP that measures the difference between government pledges to combat climate change and the emissions reductions scientists say are necessary to avert planetary catastrophe, found that current policies are leading to between 2.5°C and 2.9°C of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. 

A 3-degree Celsius warming scenario would unleash a cascade of catastrophic consequences, including the displacement of over a billion people, the collapse of ice caps leading to uncontrollable sea level rise, widespread biodiversity loss, frequent and devastating extreme weather events, and the endangerment of critical carbon sinks like the Amazon and Congo Basin rainforests.

The average daily global temperature surpassed 2°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time ever on Friday, marking a historic milestone in the escalating climate crisis as world leaders prepare to gather in Dubai for the annual UN climate summit later this month. 

The 2.06°C average global temperature recorded by the European Union’s Copernicus climate change service on November 17.

“Humanity is breaking all the wrong records when it comes to climate change,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “The world must change track, or we will be saying the same thing next year — and the year after, and the year after, like a broken record.” 

The report determined that projected 2030 emissions must be slashed by at least 28-42% compared to current policy scenarios to align with the 2°C and 1.5°C goals of the Paris Agreement, respectively. Even if governments were to fully implement their Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement – a big if – warming would still reach 2.9°C, according to the report. 

The current emissions trajectory will see the world exceed the emissions threshold required to meet the 1.5C target by around 22 gigatonnes in 2030 – roughly equivalent to the combined emissions of the United States, China and the European Union. 

“The emissions gap is more like an emissions canyon — a canyon littered with broken promises and broken lives,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a media briefing on Monday. “All this is a failure of leadership and a betrayal of the vulnerable.”

Global GHG emissions under different scenarios and the emissions gap in 2030 and 2035.

Anne Olhoff, the report’s lead scientific editor, stated that the findings remain “essentially unchanged” from last year’s report. The 2022 edition found “no credible pathway” to 1.5°C and concluded that “inadequate progress on climate actions means the rapid transformation of societies is the only option.”

“The only way to maintain a possibility of achieving the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement is to relentlessly strengthen mitigation actions this decade,” said Olhoff. “All countries must urgently accelerate economy-wide low carbon transformations and the transformation of global energy systems.”

With the window of opportunity to avert the worst effects of climate change rapidly narrowing, the reduction targets outlined in the report currently appear far out of reach. In 2022, global greenhouse gas emissions rose by 1.2%, setting a new record of 57.4 Gigatonnes in the planet’s atmosphere. Current projections indicate a mere 2% decline in global emissions from 2019 levels over the same period.

Governments worldwide are planning to produce 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than is compatible with the 1.5°C target, while the top 20 oil and gas companies alone plan to produce emissions 173% above the 1.5°C target in 2040, according to recent reports by the UN and medical journal The Lancet.

This surge in coal, oil, and gas extraction by governments and private sector fossil fuel companies is set to unleash over 3.5 times the carbon emissions allowed under the 1.5°C warming limit and nearly exhaust the entire carbon budget for 2°C, according to UNEP.

Committed CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure, compared with carbon budgets reflecting the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.

“Governments can’t keep pledging to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement and then greenlight huge fossil fuel projects,” said Andersen. “It is throwing the global energy transition and humanity’s future into question.”

When the Paris Agreement was ratified in 2015, the probability of global average annual temperatures temporarily surpassing 1.5°C was close to zero. Today, those odds have ballooned to 50% for the 2022-2026 period, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). 

The most optimistic emissions scenario outlined in the Emissions Gap report puts the chance of keeping annual global temperatures below 1.5°C at a mere 14%. The worst-case emissions scenario presented an upper limit of 3.8°C of warming, more than doubling the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement.

“We know it is still possible to make the 1.5°C limit a reality, and we know how to get there,” said Guterres. “We have roadmaps from the International Energy Agency and the IPCC — and it requires tearing out the poison root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.”

Global greenhouse gas emissions hit a new record of 57.4 Gigatonnes in the planet’s atmosphere in 2022.

A single pyrrhic victory is hidden beneath the gloomy findings of the UNEP report: the Paris Agreement has spurred some, albeit wholly insufficient, action on climate change.

Global greenhouse gas emissions, which were projected to rise by around 16% by 2030 at the time of the Paris Agreement, are now on track to increase by just 3% compared to 2015 levels. Since 2015, a total of 149 signatory countries to the agreement have updated their climate commitments, with nine countries doing so since COP27 in Egypt last year.

These nine countries’ commitments will lead to a reduction of around 0.1 Gigatonnes of emissions. However, to achieve the 2°C pathway, the world must reduce emissions by 18 Gigatonnes, while a 29 Gigatonne decrease is necessary to stay on track for 1.5°C.

Despite the Paris Agreement’s modest progress, the world continues to fall behind on climate action, and records are being broken at an almost monthly rate.

In September 2023, global average temperatures reached 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels, surpassing the previous record by an unprecedented 0.5°C. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, this year is almost certain to be the warmest on record.

“Leaders cannot delay any longer; we are out of road. COP28 must set us on a path to immediate and dramatic climate action,” said Guterres. “The crucial aspect is our addiction to fossil fuels. It is time to establish a clear phase-out with a time limit linked to 1.5°C.”

Image Credits: UNEP.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.