Takeaways from the UN Emission Gap Report, 2019

The recently released 10th edition of the United Nations Emissions Gap Report provides the latest assessment of scientific studies on current and estimated future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and compares these with the emission levels permissible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. The report highlights a number of encouraging developments that have taken place and reflects on the growing political focus on the climate crisis in several countries. However, the summary findings present a bleak picture as countries have collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions.

TRENDS IN GHG EMISSIONS: The report highlights that by 2030, emissions would need to be 25 per cent and 55 per cent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively.

GHG emissions have risen at a rate of 1.5 per cent per year in the last decade. Total GHG emissions, including from land-use change, reached a record high of 55.3 GtCO2e in 2018. Fossil CO2 emissions from energy use and industry, which dominate total GHG emissions, grew 2.0 per cent in 2018, reaching a record 37.5 GtCO2 per year.

The G20 members are the highest contributors, accounting for 78% of the global GHG emissions. Thus, they largely determine not only the global emission trends but also the extent to which the 2030 emissions gap will be closed.

Looking at the progress of G20 economies, collectively they are on track to meet their limited 2020 Cancun Pledges to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Towards their NDC targets, six members (China, the EU, India, Mexico, Russia and Turkey) are projected to meet their unconditional NDC targets with current policies. Among them, three countries (India, Russia and Turkey) are projected to be more than 15 per cent lower than their NDC target emission levels. But for Brazil, the emissions projections from three annually updated publications were all revised upward, reflecting the recent trend towards increased deforestation, among others.

PROGRESS MADE BY NATIONS: Many drivers of climate action have changed in the last years, with several options for ambitious climate action becoming less costly, more numerous and better understood.

First, technological and economic developments present opportunities to decarbonize the economy, especially the energy sector, at a cost that is lower than ever. Second, the synergies between climate action and economic growth and development objectives, including options for addressing distributional impacts, are better understood. Finally, policy momentum across various levels of government, as well as a surge in climate action commitments by non-state actors, are creating opportunities for countries to engage in real transitions.

A key example of technological and economic trends is the cost of renewable energy, which is declining more rapidly than was predicted just a few years ago. Renewables are currently the cheapest source of new power generation in most of the world.

The report praises India for developing an economy-wide green industrialization strategy towards zero-emission technologies, transitioning from coal-fired power plants to RNE power, expanding mass public transit systems and developing domestic electric vehicle targets working towards 100 per cent new sales of zero-emission cars.

China, on the other hand, has promoted near-zero emission building construction and integrated it into Government planning. Additionally, it has banned all new coal-fired power plants and promoted renewables and electric mobility that has accelerated development towards a 100 per cent carbonfree electricity system.

Japan has developed a strategic energy plan that includes halting the construction of new freely emitting coal-fired power plants, as well as a phase-out schedule of existing plants and a 100 per cent carbon-free electricity supply.

The European Union has introduced climate legislation that aims to achieve at least a 40 per cent reduction in GHG emissions. The regulation will help achieve 100 per cent carbon-free electricity supply between 2040 and 2050 by promoting new natural gas pipelines, phasing out coal-fired plants and shifting towards increased use of public transport.

FUTURE ACTION STEPS: With only current policies, GHG emissions are estimated to be 60 GtCO2e in 2030. On a least-cost pathway towards the Paris Agreement goals in 2030, median estimates are 41 GtCO2e for 2°C, 35 GtCO2e for 1.8°C, and 25 GtCO2e for 1.5°C. Although the number of countries announcing net zero GHG emission targets for 2050 is increasing, only a few countries have so far formally submitted long-term strategies to the UNFCCC, none of which are from a G20 member. Same goes for the nations committed to net zero deforestation targets and phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies. These commitments are often not supported by ground-level implementation.

This year’s report explores six entry points for progressing towards closing the emissions gap through transformational change in the following areas: (a) air pollution, air quality, health; (b) urbanization; (c) governance, education, employment; (d) digitalization; (e) energy- and materialefficient services for raising living standards; and (f) land use, food security, bioenergy. Deep-rooted shifts in values, norms, consumer culture and world views are inescapably part of the great sustainability transformation. Decarbonizing the global economy can be one such effort to combat climate change that demands fundamental structural changes in economic sectors, firms, labour markets and trade patterns.

Important aspect of decarbonisation is shifting to Renewables and energy efficiency for a successful energy transition and to driving down energy-related CO2 emissions. But it will require significant investments. Climate policies that are consistent with the 1.5°C goal will require upscaling energy system supply-side investments to between US$1.6 trillion and US$3.8 trillion per year globally on average over the 2020–2050 time-frame, depending on how rapid energy efficiency and conservation efforts can be ramped up.

Therefore, given the important role that energy and especially the electricity sector will play in any low-carbon transformation, the report examines five transition options: (a) Expanding Renewable Energy for electrification (b) Phasing out coal for rapid decarbonization of the energy system (c) Decarbonizing transport with a focus on electric mobility (d) Decarbonizing energy-intensive industry and (e) Avoiding future emissions while improving energy access.

Implementing such major transitions in a number of areas will require increased interdependency between energy and other infrastructure sectors, where changes in one sector can impact another. Similarly, there will be a strong need to connect demand and supply-side policies and include wider synergies and co-benefits, such as job losses and creation, rehabilitation of ecosystem services, etc. The same applies for decarbonizing transport, where there will be a need for complementarity and coordination of policies, driven by technological, environmental and land-use pressures. The other aspect of decarbonisation is Demand-side material efficiency that offers substantial GHG mitigation opportunities that are complementary to those obtained through an energy system transformation. But this has been mostly overlooked by the policy makers.

The mitigation potential from demand-side material efficiency improvements is discussed in the context of the following categories of action: Product light weighting and substitution of high carbon materials with low-carbon materials to reduce material-related GHG emissions associated with product production, as well as operational energy consumption of vehicles. It also involves improvements in the yield of material production and product manufacture and more intensive use, longer life, component reuse, remanufacturing and repair as strategies to obtain more service from material-based products.

CONCLUSIONS: In the times to come, climate protection and adaptation investments will become a precondition for peace and stability, and will require unprecedented efforts to transform societies, economies, infrastructures and governance institutions. By necessity, this will see profound change in how energy, food and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses and markets.

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