Every year, the Emissions Gap Report signals the difference between where greenhouse emissions are predicted to be in 2030 and where they should be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The 2020 report finds that a brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will make no significant difference to long-term climate change.
The world is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century – far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.
But hope lies in a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which could help put the world close to the pathway to 2°C, and growing commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050 – although more work would be required to reach the 1.5°C goal.
Everybody – from governments to businesses to individual consumers – needs to work together to resolve a growing crisis that will dwarf the impacts of COVID-19 in both scale and longevity.
Let’s explore the findings of the report in detail.
As global attention focuses on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis is continuing. The pandemic will cause a dip in 2020 emissions, but this will only be temporary without a dramatic and planned shift to low-carbon economies.
In 2019, total greenhouse gas emissions, including land-use change, reached a new high of 59.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e). This means that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to grow, as shown in the graph below (expressed in parts per million).
The year 2020 is likely to be the warmest on record, with wildfires, droughts, storms and glacier melt intensifying.
Carbon dioxide emissions are predicted to fall up to 7 per cent as a result of the pandemic slowdown. But this dip only translates to a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050.
Once economies heat up again after the pandemic, emissions will bounce back – perhaps even stronger.
This is because government pledges under the Paris Agreement, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), are still woefully inadequate.
The pandemic is a warning from nature to recover better by acting on climate change, nature loss and pollution. The pandemic is linked to the loss of nature, which is driven by the erosion of wild spaces. This brings humanity into closer contact with other species, which can pass their diseases onto people.
As the drivers of nature loss and climate change are often the same, acting hard and fast on climate can also protect against future pandemics.Image Credit Majid Asgaripour WANA via Reuters
A french firefighter tackles a blaze during harvest season. Recent years have seen an uptick in wildfires, exacerbated by climate change.Image Credit Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
Locusts swarm in Turkana, Kenya, part of a wider plague that has devastated crops in East Africa. The plague has been linked to an increase in tropical cyclones that create ideal hatching conditions for desert locusts. Image Credit Luis Tato / FAO / Latin America News Agency
A Spanish woman halts at a flooded road. Spain's Mediterranean region is expected to be badly hit by increased storms and flooding as climate change increases. Image Credit Vincent West / Reuters
Such a green pandemic recovery would put emissions in 2030 at 44 GtCO2e, shaving 25 per cent off the emissions we would expect to see based on policies in place pre-COVID.
This would bring the world within the range of emissions required for the 2°C pathway, although more action is possible and in fact would be required to reach the 1.5°C goal.
The report identifies measures to prioritize a green recovery.
These include direct support for zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, and promoting nature-based solutions – including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.
Such measures can help to usher in the long-term transformations needed to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.
Conversely, a rebound in greenhouse gases from a return to high-carbon societies after the pandemic may push 2030 emissions even higher – up to 60 GtCO2e.
So far, action on a green fiscal recovery has been limited. Around one-quarter of G20 members have dedicated shares of their spending, up to 3 per cent of GDP, to low-carbon measures. For most others, spending has mostly been high-carbon or neutral.
However, the report finds cause for optimism in the growing number of countries that have committed to net-zero emissions. At the time of report completion, 126 countries covering 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions had adopted, announced or were considering net-zero goals.
These commitments must urgently be translated into strong near-term policies and action, and reflected in NDCs. This is because, to avoid climate disaster, 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.
Click on a country on the map to explore the G20’s actions, commitments and announced intentions on green fiscal recovery and net-zero emissions.
The report examines different scenarios to see where emissions are likely to land in 2030 and what this implies for global temperature rise at the end of the century.
To explore these scenarios, move the thermometer to different temperatures. You will then see the 2030 levels of emissions, which implies such a temperature rise in the graph to the right.
Each year the report also looks at the potential of specific sectors. In 2020, it considers consumer behaviour and the shipping and aviation sectors.
If nothing is done, combined 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. Both sectors need to combine energy efficiency with a rapid transition away from fossil fuel.
Around two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private households, when using consumption-based accounting.
Developed nations, in particular the wealthy, bear greatest responsibility. The combined emissions of the richest one per cent of the global population account for more than the poorest 50 per cent.
This group will need to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 to stay in line with the Paris Agreement targets. The poorest 50 per cent could actually increase their footprint several times.
Consumption habits must change – not just to reduce climate change, but to address nature loss and pollution.
There are numerous examples of how governments can promote sustainable lifestyles.
The gap between climate action and climate reality remains massive. But it is not too late to act.
We have the knowledge, technology and opportunity in pandemic recovery to take a huge leap forward and begin closing the gap.
Governments must go greener in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions to kick-start faster action on climate change.
They must reflect their green recovery efforts and net-zero announcements in increased NDC ambitions for the next climate meeting in 2021.
They must follow up with further rapid and effective policy response to deliver systemic change.
These actions would put us on track for the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement, and give us a fighting chance of attaining the 1.5°C goal.
This is the only way to head off a crisis that will, ultimately, dwarf all of the impacts of the pandemic in both scale and longevity.
We must act now.