UN reveals 'Gigatonne gap' in climate pledges

Posted: 23 February 2010

Countries will have to be far more ambitious in cutting greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to effectively curb a rise in global temperature at 2 degrees C or less, according to a major new study.

The greenhouse gas modelling study is based on estimates of researchers at nine leading centres, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). It reveals what Achim Steiner, UNEP's executive director, calls a 'Gigatonne gap' between projected emissions and those that could keep the rise in global termperature to no more than 2 degrees celsius.

The experts suggest that annual global greenhouse gas emissions should not be larger than 40 to 48.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) of equivalent C02 in 2020 and should peak sometime between 2015 and 2021.

Total greenhouse gas emissions 1990-2050
Total greenhouse gas emissions 1990-2050
There is a tradeoff between the timing of the peak in emissions and the rate of decrease in emissions afterwards: the sooner and lower the peak, the slower the rate of decrease can be afterwards. And even if the emissions gap is closed in 2020, further emission reductions after 2020 are necessary if the aim is to stay within the two degree limit. It is therefore advisable to set international emission targets not only for 2020 but also for 2050 to be confident that cumulative emissions over the long run do not cause a greater than two degree increase in global temperature.
They also estimate that between 2020 and 2050, global emissions need to fall by between 48 per cent and 72 per cent, indicating that an ambition to cut greenhouse gases by around three per cent a year over that 30 year period is also needed.

Inadequate pledges

Such a path offers a 'medium' likelihood or at least a 50/50 chance of keeping a global temperature rise at below 2 degrees C, says the new report.

The study, launched on the eve of UNEP's Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum taking place in Bali, Indonesia, has analyzed the pledges of 60 developed and developing economies.

They have been recently submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) following the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in December.

The nine modeling centres have now estimated how far these pledges go towards meeting a reasonable 'peak' in emissions depending on whether the high or the low intentions are met.

"The expected emissions for 2020 range between 48.8 to 51.2 GT of CO2 equivalent based on whether high or low pledges will be fulfilled," says the report. But, in order to meet the 2 degree C aim in 2050, emissions in 2020 need to be between 40 Gt and 48.3 Gt.

Thus even with the best intentions there is a gap of between 0.5 and 8.8Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, amounting to an average shortfall in emission cuts of 4.7 Gt

Bigger gap

If the low end of the emission reduction pledges are fulfilled, the gap is even bigger - 2.9 Gt to 11.2 Gt of CO2 equivalent per year, with an average gap of 7.1 Gt, says the report How Close Are We to the Two Degree Limit?

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "There are clearly a great deal of assumptions underlying these figures, but they do provide an indication of where countries are and perhaps more importantly where they need to aim."

"There clearly is 'Gigatonne gap' which may be a significant one according some of the modelers. This needs to be bridged and bridged quickly if the international community is to pro-actively manage emissions down in a way that makes economic sense. "There are multiple reasons for countries to make a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy of which climate change is a key one. But energy security, cuts in air pollution and diversifying energy sources are also important drivers," said Mr Steiner.

Meltwater
Meltwater
Meltwater stream flowing off the Greenland ice sheet. Photo by Roger Braithwaite, University of Manchester courtesy NASA
"This week at the UNEP GC/GMEF we will also shine a light on the opportunities ranging from accelerating clean tech and renewable energy enterprises to the climate, social and economic benefits of investing in terrestrial and marine ecosystems," he added.

Year Book

Some of those opportunities are set out in the UNEP Year Book 2010. These include Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) which gained political support at the Copenhagen climate change meeting.

REDD, which involves supporting developing countries to conserve rather than clear tropical forests, could make an important contribution not only to combating climate change but also to overcoming poverty and to a successful UN International Year of Biodiversity,says UNEP.

The Year Book estimates that investing $22 billion to $29 billion in REDD could cut global deforestation by 25 per cent by 2015.

It also highlights a new and promising REDD project in Brazil, at the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve in Amazonas. Here each family receives US$28 a month if the forest remains uncut, one potential way of tipping the economic balance in favour of conservation versus continued deforestation.

Renewable energy is are also gaining momentum, says the Year Book, although its use is still very low compared to its huge potential. The global installed wind generation capacity has grown at the rate of 25 per cent per year over the past five years.

In China, for example installed capacity has nearly doubled every year since the end of 2004 - and the report notes that the wind energy potential under perfect conditions has been estimated at up to 72,000 GW, nearly five times total energy demand. Probably 20 per cent of this energy potential could be captured in the future, representing almost 15,000 GW.

Managing a response to climate change will also also involve improvements in international environment governance, improvements whihc affect other key themes highlighted in the UNEP Year Book 2010.

Harmful substances

Among the chemicals now causing the greatest concern worldwide are endocrine disrupters, which interfere with hormone systems and are linked to serious effects on reproductive health.

A growing number of scientists are concerned that spikes in cancer, reproductive abnormalities, infertility, and behavioural disorders are the result of exposure to these chemicals during the development of foetuses and children.

The Year Book also looks at the nitrogen cycle, which has been identified as one of three key areas where 'planetary boundaries' have been crossed.

Most of the world's biodiversity hotspots receive nitrogen from air and water at levels known to alter ecosystems, and nitrogen is creating dead zones in coastal waters - areas where big drops in oxygen levels can occur.

Global nitrogen use in agriculture is projected to double to some 220 million tonnes a year by 2050 if present trends continue.

Reducing the world's nitrogen use will require a profound transformation of agricultural practices. But this may be essential to keep ecosystems from becoming so saturated with nitrogen that they become terrestrial equivalents of the oceans dead zones.

Managing ecosystems

Regional variation in climate over last 30 years
Regional variation in climate over last 30 years
Regional variation in climate over last 30 years. Top map shows temperature variations and lower map variations in precipitation. Click for full-size image.
The Year Book points out that changes in biodiversity due to human activities have been more rapid in the past 50 years than at any other time in human history.

The latest IUCN Red List, 17,291 species out of 47,677 assessed are under threat: 21 per cent of all known mammals, 30 per cent of all known amphibians, 12 per cent of all known birds, 28 per cent of reptiles, 37 per cent of freshwater fishes, 70 per cent of plants, and 35 per cent of invertebrates.

The report emphasizes that ecosystem management, of which biodiversity is the building block, has an important role to play in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Managing ecosystems for resilience, and protecting biodiversity to support this resilience, is critical both to meet development objectives and to address the challenges of climate change.

Disasters and conflict

The year Book says that 40 per cent of intra-state armed conflicts have been shown to be directly linked to competition over natural resources. And the link between disasters and conflict are two edged, it says.

First, environmental degradation often results in the loss of natural defences and environmental services, increasing communities' vulnerability to environmental hazards and weakening their resilience.

Second, climate change is expected to exacerbate environmental degradation and increase disaster risks as storms, floods, and droughts become more frequent and more intense.

It says the year 2010 will see further work and research into this area.

The UNEP Year Book 2010 is available online at www.unep.org. To order a copy visit www.earthprint.com