‘Too Little, Too Late’ could be one way to sum up the key message in the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report assessing what is needed to keep global temperature rise to below 2°C by 2050. But in fact, the message is far more subtle, and more positive than one might assume from reading the press headlines.
The 2013 Emissions Gap Report, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the eve the next round of UN climate talks, says what most people already know, namely if we don’t act to lower greenhouse gas emissions, the likelihood of keeping global temperatures below 2°C this century will diminish and that opens the door to all sorts of problems.
Nothing new there!
What the report really says is that ways do exist to reach the 2oC target, but if we don’t narrow the gap between the current level of emission reduction commitments and what is needed to meet that target, things get dicey in terms of climate mitigation challenges after 2020.
Put another way, the report estimates that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway.
Therein is the subtle message – the least-cost pathway. If we don’t act more aggressively to close this gap or significantly reduce it by 2020, the available options to limit temperature increase to a lower target of 1.5° C will be closed, further increasing the need to rely on faster (and more costly) energy-efficiency improvements and biomass with carbon capture and storage.
Translation: if we don’t act aggressively now to reduce emissions and step up to even higher CO2 reduction commitments, we will face the need for much higher rates of global emission reductions in the medium term; greater lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure; greater dependence on often unproven technologies in the medium term; greater costs of mitigation in the medium and long term; and greater risks of failing to meet the 2° C target.
As summed up by UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, “delayed actions means a higher rate of climate change in the near term and likely more near-term climate impacts, as well as the continued use of carbon-intensive and energy-intensive infrastructure. This ‘lock-in’ would slow down the introduction of climate-friendly technologies and narrow the developmental choices that would place the global community on the path to a sustainable, green future.”
“However, the stepping stone of the 2020 target can still be achieved by strengthening current pledges and by further action, including scaling up international cooperation initiatives in areas such as energy efficiency, fossil fuel subsidy reform and renewable energy,” he added.
“Even agriculture can contribute, as direct emissions from this sector are currently responsible for 11 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions-more if its indirect emissions are taken into account.”
His message is reinforced by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “As we head towards Warsaw for the latest round of climate negotiations, there is a real need for increased ambition by all countries: ambition which can take countries further and faster towards bridging the emissions gap and a sustainable future for all.”
“However, increased national ambition will not be enough to meet the scientific realities of climate change, which is one reason why a universal new agreement-able to catalyze international cooperation-is urgently needed by 2015.”
This is where the numbers get hard to follow. In order to be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off the negative impacts outlined in the report, emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further cuts needed-to 40 GtCO2e by 2025, 35 GtCO2e by 2030 and 22 GtCO2e by 2050.
This target was based on scenarios of action beginning in 2010. But total global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, the last year for which data are available, already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, highlighting the scale of the task ahead.
Should the world continue under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, which is 1 GtCO2e higher than estimated in last year’s gap report.
Scientists have confirmed the risks of irreversible damage to the environment would increase significantly if the global average temperature rises above 2°C in relation to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that human activity is ‘extremely likely’ (95 to 100 per cent probability) to be the cause of this warming.
But here is the kicker – Meeting the 2020 goal is possible
Even though the window of opportunity is narrowing, it is still possible to attain the 2020 goal of 44 GtC02e/year through firm and rapid action. Studies reveal that, at costs of up to US$100 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, emissions could be reduced by 14 to 20 GtCO2e compared to business-as-usual levels.
For example, simply tightening up the rules governing pledges in the climate negotiations could narrow the gap by about 1-2 GtCO2e, while if countries implement the maximum reductions already pledged without conditions could narrow it by 2-3 GtCO2e. Expanding the scope of pledges could narrow the gap by further 2 GtCO2e.
These include covering all emissions in national pledges, having all countries pledge emission reductions, and reducing emissions from international transport.
Adding up the reduction from the tightening of rules, implementing ambitious pledges, and expanding the scope of the current pledges could bring the global community about halfway to closing the gap. The report says that the remaining gap could be bridged by further international and national action, including through “international cooperative initiatives”.
International cooperation could bring huge gains
There are an increasing number of international cooperative initiatives, through which countries and other bodies cooperate to promote technologies or policies that have climate benefits, even though climate change mitigation may not be the primary goal of the initiative.
The report identified several areas ripe for such initiatives, with many partnerships already in place that can be expanded and replicated to bring the needed gains:
- Energy efficiency, which could cut the gap by up to 2 GtCO2e by 2020. For example, electricity for lighting accounts for approximately 15 per cent of global power consumption and five per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. More than 50 countries have agreed to phase out inefficient incandescent lamps by the end of 2016;
- Renewable energy initiatives could cut 1 to 3 GtCO2e from emissions by 2020. A total of $244 billion was invested in renewable energy in 2012 and 115 GW of new renewables were installed worldwide-a record year according to REN21′s Renewables 2013 Global Status Report. Over the last eight years, the number of countries with clean energy targets has tripled from 48 to 140, indicating that the shift to renewables is gaining pace;
- Fossil fuel subsidy reform, which could bring benefits of 0.4 to 2 GtCO2e by 2020;
However, in order for international cooperative initiatives to be effective, the report finds that they must have:
- A clearly defined vision and mandate;
- The right mix of participants appropriate for that mandate, going beyond traditional climate negotiators;
- Stronger participation from developing country actors;
- Sufficient funding and an institutional structure that supports implementation and follow-up, but maintains flexibility;
- Incentives for participants;
- Transparency and accountability mechanisms.
Agriculture offers real opportunities
This year’s report pays particular attention to the agriculture sector as, although few countries have specified action in this area as part of implementing their pledges, estimates of emission-reduction potentials for the sector range from 1.1 GtCO2e to 4.3 GtCO2e.
The report outlines a range of measures that not only contribute to climate-change mitigation, but enhance the sector’s environmental sustainability and could provide other benefits such as higher yields, lower fertilizer costs or extra profits from wood supply.
As examples, three key practices that should be scaled-up more widely are highlighted:
- No-tillage practices. No-tillage refers to the elimination of ploughing by direct seeding under the mulch layer of the previous season’s crop. This reduces emissions from soil disturbance and use of farm machinery.
- Improved nutrient and water management in rice production. This includes innovative cropping practices that reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions.
- Agroforestry. This consists of different management practices that deliberately include woody perennials on farms and the landscape, and which increase the uptake and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in biomass and soils.
Summing up, the UNEP report says we can do it, and if we act now, the costs will be lower overall than what they will be under a ‘business as usual’ scenario.
The Executive Summary to the report is available here
The full report can be downloaded here:
All these issues will be discussed at GLOBE 2014 taking place March 26-28, 2014 in Vancouver Canada, where practical solutions and innovative emission-reducing technologies will be on display. Check here for more information.