Climate Change

Post-COVID-19 focus must be on dropping fossil fuels: UNEP Emissions Gap report

By using a green pandemic recovery to get a head start and pushing on with real systemic change, the world could hit the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement

By Shazneen Cyrus Gazdar
Published: Wednesday 09 December 2020
The post-COVID recovery needs to focus on low carbon, ideally decarbonisation by moving away from fossil fuels, according to the Emissions Gap Report 2020. Photo: istock

The much-awaited United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2020 has been released December 9, 2020.

It states that, “despite a brief dip in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3 degrees Celsius (°C) this century — far beyond the 2015 Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.”

With wildfires, storms and glacier melt intensifying, 2020 is on track to be one of the warmest years in history. In 2019, total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including land-use change, reached a new high of 59.1 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e).

The ‘good’ news is that CO2 emissions are predicted to fall up to seven per cent in 2020. However, in the long-term, this dip means only a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050.  

Read more: Emission Gap Report 2019: Climate Emergency CoP 25: A gap that keeps growing

A green pandemic recovery could cut up to 25 per cent off the emissions we would expect to see in 2030, based on policies in place before COVID-19. A green recovery could put emissions in 2030 at 44 GtCO2e — within the range of emissions that give a 66 per cent chance of holding temperatures to below 2°C.

Therefore, the pandemic provides an opportunity for a recovery that puts the world on a 2°C pathway and far outstrips emissions savings that would be delivered under unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), although more will be needed to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

Global total GHG emissions by 2030 under the original current policies scenario based on pre-COVID-19 studies and various ‘what if’ scenarios using explorative calculations (post-COVID-19)

*median and 10th to 90th percentile range

Source: Emission Gap Report 2020

Government and individual efforts

Government pledges under the Paris Agreement, known as NDCs, are still woefully inadequate. Predicted emissions in 2030 leave the world on the path to a 3.2°C increase this century, even if all unconditional NDCs are fully implemented.

The levels of ambition in the Paris Agreement must be roughly tripled for the 2°C pathway and increased at least fivefold for the 1.5°C pathway.

Read more: Emission Gap Report 2018: Countries must make serious emission cuts, reiterates UN report

Enabling measures that need to be prioritised include direct support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, no new coal plants and promoting nature-based solutions — including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.

However, using recovery measures to accelerate a green transition has largely been missed. The report states that, “Unless this is reversed, the Paris Agreement goals will slip further out of reach”.

The potential and significant opportunity for countries to implement low-carbon policies exists but programmes and governments must prioritise this in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions.

The report further states:

Around a quarter of G20 members have dedicated shares of their spending, up to 3 per cent of GDP, explicitly to low-carbon measures. However, for most, spending has been predominantly high carbon, implying net negative emissions, or neutral, having no discernible effects on emissions.

The one silver lining of 2020 has been that 127 countries have committed to net-zero emissions by mid-century, covering 51 per cent of GHG emissions. With the United States re-joining the Paris Agreement early next year, it would increase the number to 63 per cent.

Read more: Emission Gap Report 2017: Commitments under Paris deal one-third of what is needed: UN Emission Gap Report 2017

Although the net-zero emissions goals are encouraging, they highlight a vast discrepancy between the ambition of the goals and the inadequate level of ambition in NDCs. NDCs should be considered as short-term, stepping stones towards reaching the largest goal of net-zero emission targets set by individual countries.

So it follows that more countries need to develop long-term strategies consistent with the Paris Agreement and new and updated NDCs need to become consistent with the net-zero emissions goals.

As the report states:

To remain feasible and credible, these commitments must be urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action and reflected in NDCs

An interesting note is that two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private households, when using consumption-based accounting. The mobility, residential and food sectors each contribute about 20 per cent of lifestyle emissions.

The combined emissions of the richest one per cent of the global population account for more than twice the poorest 50 per cent. The elite will need to reduce their footprint by a factor of at least 30 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets.

Per capita and absolute CO2 consumption emissions by four global income groups for 2015

Source: Emission Gap Report 2020

The Emissions Gap Report states that “stronger action must include facilitating, encouraging and mandating changes in consumption behaviour by the private sector and individuals.”

The report recommends governments to enable and encourage consumers to avoid high-carbon consumption including replacing domestic short haul flights with rail, incentives and infrastructure to enable cycling and car sharing, improving energy efficiency of housing, renewable energy defaults from grid providers and policies to reduce food waste.

Read more: Emission Gap Report 2016: World will witness 2.9 to 3.4°C temperature rise even if Paris deal fully implemented

Another trend that was specially highlighted is the shipping and aviation sector which accounts for 5 per cent of global GHG emissions. It is a growing sector and if current trends continued, combined international emissions from shipping and aviation will likely consume between 60 and 220 per cent of allowable CO2 emissions by 2050 under the 1.5°C scenario.

The report states:

Improvements in technology and operations can improve the fuel efficiency of transport if incentivised, but projected increases in demand mean this will not result in decarbonisation and absolute reductions of CO2. Both sectors need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuel

The bottomline

Therefore the bottom line is that the post-COVID recovery needs to focus on low carbon, ideally decarbonisation by moving away from fossil fuels. In increasing their short-term NDC enhancements and commitments, putting money into technological developments towards enabling the above and finally, additional policies are required to drive changes in technology, operations, fuel use and demand.

Read more: Emission Gap Report 2015: UNEP releases adaptation gap report 2015

This will allow the reduction in GHG emissions ‘saved’ during the global lockdown to be channelled towards long-term reduction in global warming trends.

To have a likely chance of hitting the 2°C target, emissions need to be 41 GtCO2e in 2030. For the 1.5°C target, the figure is 25 GtCO2e.

By using a green pandemic recovery to get a head start and pushing on with real systemic change, planned and tracked through stronger NDCs and net-zero commitments, we could hit the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement and be in with a fighting chance of attaining the 1.5°C goal.

Barring these activates, as it stands now, the Emission Gap Report 2020 states that we are on a dangerous 3.2°C global warming pathway by this century.

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