Four years after countries struck a landmark deal in Paris to rein in greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to avert the worst effects of global warming, humanity is headed toward those very climate catastrophes, according to a UN report issued Tuesday, with China and the United States, the two biggest polluters, having expanded their carbon footprints last year.
“The summary findings are bleak,” the report said, because countries have failed to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions even after repeated warnings from scientists. The result, the authors added, is that “deeper and faster cuts are now required.”
The world’s 20 richest countries, responsible for more than three-fourths of emissions, must take the biggest, swiftest steps to move away from fossil fuels, the report emphasised. The richest country of all, the United States, however, has formally begun to pull out of the Paris accord altogether.
Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5% every year over the past decade, according to the annual assessment, the Emissions Gap Report, which is produced by the UN Environment Programme. The opposite must happen if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including more intense droughts, stronger storms and widespread food insecurity 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 Organisation 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.
Under the Paris agreement, reached in November 2015, every country has pledged to rein in emissions, with each setting its own targets and timetables. Even if every country fulfils its current pledges — and many, including the United States, 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 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, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit; last year, a UN-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, 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 US Centre.
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 SUVs, 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.
Diplomats are scheduled to gather in Madrid in December for the next round of negotiations over the rules of the Paris agreement. The world’s biggest polluters are under pressure to raise their pledges.
“This is a new and stark reminder,” Spain’s minister for ecological transition, Teresa Ribera, said of the Emissions Gap Report in an email. “We urgently need to align with the Paris agreement objectives and elevate climate ambition.”
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.
Those who have followed the diplomatic negotiations say they are confronted by something of a cognitive dissonance when they think about this moment. The world’s biggest polluters are nowhere near where they should be to draw down their emissions at a time when the human toll of climate change is near impossible to ignore.
And yet, renewable energy is spreading faster than could have been anticipated even a few years ago; electric buses and cars are proliferating and 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.
“There’s a bit of a best of times, worst of times about this,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, a research and advocacy group.