Governments failing to build back better in climate fight

The world has been warned “time is running out” as a new report found the COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed “the relentless advance of climate change”.

In the foreword to the “United in Science 2021” report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world had to take decisive action and the next two months may well be the final chance to limit the warming of the planet.

“This report is clear time is running out,” he said. “For the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26, to be a turning point, we need all countries to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, backed up by concrete long-term strategies, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions which collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.

“We need a breakthrough on protecting people and their livelihoods, with at least half of all public climate finance committed to building resilience and helping people adapt.  And we need much greater solidarity, including full delivery of the long-standing climate finance pledge to help developing countries take climate action.  There is no alternative if we are to achieve a safer, more sustainable and prosperous future for all.”

The report warned, despite global government’s pledged to build back better there is no sign that we are growing back greener, as carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly recovering after a temporary blip due to the economic slowdown and are nowhere close to reduction targets. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue at record levels, committing the planet to dangerous future warming.

“Rising global temperatures are fuelling devastating extreme weather throughout the world, with spiralling impacts on economies and societies,” it added. “Billions of work hours have been lost through heat alone. The average global temperature for the past five years was among the highest on record. There is an increasing likelihood that temperatures will temporarily breach the threshold of 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial era, in the next five years.”

It added the scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole “are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years”. Even with ambitious action to slow greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will continue to rise and threaten low-lying islands and coastal populations throughout the world, according to the report.

“This is a critical year for climate action.  This report by the United Nations and global scientific partner organisations provides a holistic assessment of the most recent climate science.  The result is an alarming appraisal of just how far off course we are,” added Guterres.

“We are still significantly off-schedule to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This year has seen fossil fuel emissions bounce back, greenhouse gas concentrations continuing to rise and severe human-enhanced weather events that have affected health, lives and livelihoods on every continent. Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend.”

The report, the third in a series, was coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with input from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Global Carbon Project (GCP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Met Office (UK).

“Throughout the pandemic we have heard that we must build back better to set humanity on a more sustainable path and to avoid the worst impacts of climate change on society and economies. This report shows that so far in 2021 we are not going in the right direction,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.

It found:

  • Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2 O) continued to increase in 2020 and the first half of 2021.
  • Overall emissions reductions in 2020 likely reduced the annual increase of the atmospheric concentrations of long-lived greenhouse gases, but this effect was too small to be distinguished from natural variability.
  • Reducing atmospheric methane (CH4) in the short term could support the achievement of the Paris Agreement. This does not reduce the need for strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gases

On Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Budgets (Global Carbon Project) it reported:

  • Fossil CO2 emissions – coal, oil, gas and cement – peaked at 36.64 GtCO2 in 2019, followed by an extraordinary drop of 1.98 GtCO2 (5.6%) in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Based on preliminary estimates, global emissions in the power and industry sectors were already at the same level or higher in January-July 2021 than in the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, while emissions from road transport remained about 5% lower. Excluding aviation and sea transport, global emissions were at about the same levels as in 2019, averaged across those 7 months.

The report added five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the emissions gap is as large as ever: global emissions need to be 15 GtCO2 e lower than current unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) imply for a 2 °C goal, and 32 GtCO2 e

The global average mean surface temperature for the period from 2017–2021 (based on data until July) is among the warmest on record, estimated at 1.06 °C to 1.26 °C above pre-industrial (1850–1900) levels.

“This report is clear time is running out, for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26, to be a turning point, we need all countries to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, backed up by concrete long-term strategies, and enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions which collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, compared to 2010 levels.”

Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General

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