A child wears a mask to protect herself from dangerous emissions from forest fires in Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga, CIFOR

COVID lockdowns inconsequential for temperatures as global warming on track to rise above 3 degrees

UN chief urges all countries to declare climate emergencies as G20 invests in high-CO2 recovery

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The COVID-19 crisis has reduced travel, industrial activity and electricity generation, but the pandemic-linked fall in 2020 emissions of up to 7 percent will have a negligible impact on climate change. According to Emissions Gap Report 2020, released by UN Environment (UNEP), the dip only translates into a 0.01-degree Celsius reduction of global warming by 2050, keeping the world headed for a temperature rise of 3.2 degrees this century.

However, decisive green recovery measures can still make a difference. Weaving climate action into stimulus packages could cut up to 25 percent off predicted 2030 greenhouse gas emissions based on policies in place before COVID-19, finds the report, bringing the world closer to meeting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change‘s goal of keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“The year 2020 is on course to be one of the warmest on record, while wildfires, storms and droughts continue to wreak havoc,” said UNEP’s executive director Inger Andersen at the 2020 report’s release. The report is published annually, giving the latest statistics of the gap between expected global emissions and the limited emissions that would achieve the 2-degree target of the Paris Agreement. “I urge governments to back a green recovery in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions and raise significantly their climate ambitions in 2021.”

Priority measures include direct support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, not building any new coal plants and promoting nature-based solutions, such as large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.

Walking the talk on climate action

So far, there is a “vast discrepancy” between the ambition of countries’ pledges to net-zero emissions by mid-century and the actual near-term policies that would make those goals possible, says the UNEP report. This applies both to pandemic recovery packages and the “inadequate level of ambition” in the emissions-reduction commitments countries made to the Paris Agreement, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are due for an update by 31 December.

At the time of the Emissions Gap Report 2020’s completion, 126 countries responsible for 51 percent of global emissions had adopted, announced or were considering net-zero goals. Meanwhile, G20 countries are spending 50 percent more in their fiscal packages on fossil fuels and high-carbon sectors than they are on low-carbon energy, said UN secretary general António Guterres during the online Climate Ambition Summit, co-convened by the UN, France and the U.K. on 12 December.

“This is unacceptable,” he said during the event, which brought together more than 70 world leaders to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. “The trillions of dollars needed for COVID-19 recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations. This is a moral test. We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet.” Guterres urged all governments to declare a state of climate emergency until carbon neutrality is achieved, as 38 countries have already done.

According to the report, the levels of ambition of the Paris Agreement must be roughly tripled to limit global heating below 2 degrees Celsius and increased at least fivefold to keep it below 1.5 degrees. Countries have one year to step up climate action ahead of the next round of climate talks, or COP 26, that will take place next year in Glasgow, Scotland, postponed from this November due to the pandemic.

Transforming consumption

World leaders have an important role to play, but so do individuals and the private sector. For example, the report notes that around two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private households, with the mobility, residential and food sectors contributing about 20 percent of lifestyle emissions.

Although this concerns everybody, the wealthiest bear the greatest responsibility: the emissions of the richest 1 percent of the global population account for more than twice the combined share of the poorest 50 percent. “The elite will need to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets,” says the report.

Actions to support and enable lower carbon consumption include replacing domestic short haul flights with rail, incentives and infrastructure to enable cycling and car-sharing, improving the energy efficiency of housing and policies to reduce food waste.

The report also takes a close look at the shipping and aviation sectors, which account for 5 percent of global emissions. Improvements in technology and operations can increase fuel efficiency, but projected increases in demand mean this will not result in absolute reductions of carbon dioxide, predicts the report: “Both sectors need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuel.”

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