After three years of holding steady, global greenhouse gas emissions rose by 1.1% this year. Clearly, this is not good. In a significant report released this fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrated the urgent need to rein in global warming, and to essentially decarbonize global industries by 2050. Even a slight increase in emissions is a setback (holding steady, at a level still very unhealthy for the planet, wasn’t great either, but it was at least progress).
It also contributed to a widening of what’s known as the “emissions gap“–essentially, the difference between “where we are and where we need to be.” Every year since 2011, the UN Environment Program has detailed the state of this global emissions gap. Doing so, though, is a bit like trying to hit a moving target. “There’s so much more information now, and so many more models and projections that we have to integrate into our study,” says Philip Drost, program officer at UN Environment. As climate science has grown more evolved, as matters of measuring emissions have become more sophisticated, and most crucially, as global warming goals have become more urgent, he adds, the gap has mutated.
This year, the IPCC report has raised the stakes of the emissions gap significantly, Drost says. Previous studies of the gap analyzed the effort required to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC report called for adjusting that goal to 1.5 degrees Celsius to ensure the least possible environmental damage. Currently, nations have committed to climate action plans that are nowhere near aggressive enough to meet this heightened target. Under current commitments, we can expect to see around 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100–under which, according to another report, “preventing mass starvation will be as easy as halting the cycles of the moon.”
To keep the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees in sight, global greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by 55% by 2030, according to the UN. Right now, total emissions hover around 53.5 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide. The gap between where we’re at right now and where we should be by 2030 is around 29 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide. (Last year, the gap was between 16 and 19 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide, demonstrating the added pressure from the IPCC report). This is a daunting figure given that, according to UN Environment, the G20 countries are collectively not on track to meet their 2030 climate commitments.
Each G20 country, the UN reports, will have to implement additional policies–and commit renewed energy to meeting them–to more aggressively drive down emissions. Ideally, each country will increase its emissions reductions targets by around 3 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide to meet 2030 goals, and ramp up its efforts to stick to those targets by fivefold. Under that scenario, around 57 countries–accounting for 60% of total emissions–will have “peaked,” or reached the point at which emissions stop increasing and begin declining.
The question is: What policies and actions can countries implement to ensure they stay on track? A first step, according to UN Environment, is for countries to examine where their current policies still allow or even encourage emissions. Over 40 countries, including India, China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, still provide subsidies for fossil fuel consumption, which total around $320 billion globally. Jian Liu, UN Environment’s chief scientist, estimates that if fossil fuel subsidies were phased out entirely, global carbon emissions could drop 10% by 2030. Similarly, Liu found that setting a price of around $70 per ton of CO2 could help drive emissions down by as much as 40% in some countries. So far, there are around 51 carbon pricing schemes in place worldwide, covering around 15% of emissions.
To date, the rationale for upholding subsidies has been that it keeps energy prices low for citizens, and operating costs low for producers. “In many countries, fiscal policies are not aligned with climate goals,” Drost says. The 2018 emissions gap report makes clear that this short-term thinking will severely jeopardize the futures of those people the policies aim to help. Countries must focus on implementing carbon pricing policies (and fossil fuel subsidy phase-outs) in a way that ensures affected industries and people will receive support, and that revenues saved or generated are geared toward efforts like poverty alleviation and clean energy investments. Essentially, Drost says, emissions-reduction goals need to be integrated into every aspect of government planning, and not siloed off–as they long have been.
The emissions gap report also points to the importance of supporting low-carbon innovation across public and private sectors. Already, the UN reports, we’ve seen tremendous progress in innovations like solar energy, which has grown annually at a rate of around 38%, and whose costs have dropped 99.5% since 1975. The report urges both public and private sector players to think about how to support the scaling up of battery storage and other sustainable innovations to help keep emissions targets on track. For these innovations and other new developments, Drost says, “governments have to take on early-stage risk.” Private companies often hesitate to commit to developing new innovations out of fear that doing so will sink them financially, but without that risk, change won’t happen quickly enough. Governments should provide a safety net to companies pioneering sustainable developments.
One example of where this type of innovation could use more support is the airline industry–currently one of the most polluting sectors globally, but one that is trying to phase out polluting fossil fuels in favor of cleaner tech. Policies that support and incentivize these types of industry-wide shifts away from polluting practices should, according to the report, become widespread and well-funded to dramatically reduce emissions by 2030.
“We have to see this as a mission, like putting a man on the moon,” Drost says. “Everyone worked toward achieving that same goal, and it happened. We need to see stopping climate change as a similar mission.”