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World Needs to Mind the Carbon Emissions Gap

A new report suggests that policymakers better mind the gap if they want to meet the 2°C global warming threshold. But in spite of the warning, that chasm is growing as the world’s carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions trends from 1990-2012.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: UNEP

To bridge the gap, the world will have to reduce emissions to reach net carbon dioxide (CO2) neutrality sometime between 2055-2070,  according to the fifth annual Emissions Gap Report released on Wednesday by the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP).

“This is not a policy conclusion, this is just doing the math,” Joseph Alcamo, chief scientist of the report, said. “By 2030 we will have to turn the corner on global emissions so that we should have global emissions roughly 20-30 percent lower than they are (projected) now. That’s a telling message from the science community that business-as-usual is not an option.”

Alcamo is one of 38 scientists from 14 countries who authored the report, which highlights when different emissions cuts would be needed to avoid warming over 2°C (3.6°F). It’s a tall task, given that global carbon emissions have risen more than 45 percent since 1990. If emissions stay on their current track, the planet is projected to blow through the carbon budget needed to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C in the next 30 years. Business-as-usual emissions could warm the planet by as much as 4.8°C (8.6°F) with catastrophic effects.

The report shows that while the world may be putting on its running shoes and considering taking the leap, it’s not there yet based on the current pledged carbon emission cuts over the next few decades. The report examines emissions cuts projected through 2020 that were pledged at international climate talks in Copenhagen, along with current emissions trends, and then extrapolates their impact out through 2030.

Worldwide, human activities accounted for about 50 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (Gt CO2e) in 2012, the last year for which data is available. They would have to be shrink to 42 Gt CO2e by 2030 according to estimates based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) carbon budget. But global carbon emissions are expected to reach 56-59 Gt CO2e range, as much as 40 percent over budget.

Business-as-usual, projected and "safe" levels of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2025 and 2030.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: UNEP

Big cuts still remain to reach neutral CO2 emissions by 2070, though Alcamo noted that neutrality means that there could still be some form of emissions, but they would have to be offset by reforestation or carbon capture technology.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The report shows how the gap could be narrowed through a mix of renewable and carbon capture investments, improving energy efficiency, and reforestation. This September, a group of leading economists and global leaders laid out a specific investment pathway for how to get there. Of course, as those economists noted, any serious delay in investments would only raise the costs later.

The new U.N. report also doesn’t fully factor in the cuts pledged by the European Union or the recent pact between the U.S. and China to reduce and slow emissions.

Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, said the agreement announced last week was a “welcome surprise to all of us” and that the report’s next iteration would take those reductions into account.

Alcamo said the agreement was also “a strong signal that top emitters in the world are willing to step up to plate and take some action” that would have enormous consequences for clean technology development as well as international climate negotiations next month in Lima and next year in Paris.

Those talks are expected to generate a major global climate pact that could bring the world closer to reducing CO2 emissions and remaining within the IPCC’s carbon budget, and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Of course, how, when and if those emissions targets are met remains to be seen. But the end goal is clear.

“We’re in much, much better shape than we were going into Copenhagen,” Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said. “(This report) should be compulsory reading for all those that will be negotiating in the coming years.”

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