In the two weeks ahead of the Cop27 summit in Egypt, every group of climate wonks has a report out on the state of the play. Overwhelmed? We’ve got you covered.
This year as every year, they show that climate action is off the pace. But don’t switch off. The trends are worth a closer look.
It is conflict and energy market turmoil, not the UN process, driving the biggest shifts.
Only 24 countries heeded a call at last year’s Cop26 to update their 2030 climate targets, barely bending the ambition curve. Emissions are still rising.
Yet the response to Russian aggression and soaring gas prices has brought peak gas demand – the last refuge of the fossil fuel enthusiast – within sight.
It can’t come too soon for the Pakistanis struggling to rebuild their lives after devastating floods. What if Big Oil’s windfall profits and planned drilling investment were directed to clean energy and climate victims? Some dare to dream.
Here is what the data tells us.
We’re headed for 2.4-2.8C of warming
The Emissions Gap report described progress made since the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow as “woefully inadequate”.
The updated 2030 climate plans submitted this year reduce projected emissions in 2030 by less than 1%. Countries’ combined climate plans, including targets conditional on international finance, would reduce emissions by 10% by 2030 compared with projections based on current policies.
That’s far off track the 45% reductions scientists say are needed to keep 1.5C within reach.
Current policies would lead to 2.8C of warming by the end of the century. Countries’ unconditional commitments to 2030 would put the world on track for 2.6C of warming. If they deliver further emission cuts contingent on international finance, this would be reduced to 2.4C.
The report adds that investments worth at least $4-6 trillion are needed to decarbonise the global economy.
There have been baby steps on ambition
UN Climate Change’s assessment puts a more positive slant on the numbers but it’s conclusion is similar: “We are still nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius world,” said UN Climate Change head Simon Stiell.
The 24 updated plans submitted this year have made a small difference, according to its assessment. Emissions are set to rise 10.6% by 2030 from 2010 levels. That’s slightly better the projected 13.7% increase last year. But not fast enough to keep in line with the Paris Agreement temperature goals.
The synthesis report analyses the contributions of 193 countries submitted to the UN between Cop26 and the 23 September. Together, they cover 94.9% of total global greenhouse gas.
Emissions keep rising
As the world continues to extract and burn fossil fuels, the World Meteorological Organization finds, once again, that the three main greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide - reached new record highs in 2021.
From 2020 to 2021, carbon dioxide levels increased more rapidly than the average annual growth rate of the last decade, reaching 415.7 parts per million in the atmosphere. That's a 149% increase from pre-industrial levels. Emissions have continued to rise this year.
Concentrations of methane in the atmosphere experienced the biggest year-on-year jump since records began nearly 40 years ago. Scientists aren’t sure why. WMO suggested this was caused by both human activities and natural variability.
⚠️ Carbon dioxide
⚠️ Nitrous oxide
all reached record concentrations in the atmosphere in 2021, according to World Meteorological Organization data published today.
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) October 26, 2022
The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end
The International Energy Agency’s flagship World Energy Outlook projects that fossil fuel demand will peak this decade. For the first time, peak gas demand is in sight. Even under the IEA's least climate-friendly scenario, gas use will grow only slowly until 2030 before plateauing. Last year’s report projected continued growth until 2050.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed up gas prices and spurred governments to speed up their renewable energy rollouts, particularly in Europe. To a lesser extent, the anticipated gas peak is due to countries temporarily reverting to coal or oil because of the high prices.
Coal is predicted to peak in the next few years while oil demand could reach a high point in the mid-2030s. Even if governments do not improve their climate policies, demand for fossil fuels will decline steadily from the mid-2020s to 2050. But this won’t be fast enough to limit global heating to 1.5C.
Dirty investment could finance renewable transition
Redirecting investments going into new fossil fuel projects this decade could fully finance the wind and solar energy scale-up required to meet the goal, according to a meta analysis of major 1.5C-aligned scenarios by think tank IISD.
An estimated $570 billion will be spent on new oil and gas development and exploration annually between 2020 and 2030.
If invested in wind and solar energy, those investments would bridge the $450bn annual funding gap to displace oil and gas production in line with 1.5C goal.
The analysis finds that all major 1.5C-aligned scenarios with no or limited overshoot concur with the International Energy Agency: new investments in fossil fuel supply are incompatible with keeping 1.5C within reach and some projects will need to be retired early.
Fossil fuel profits would cover climate losses
Fossil fuel companies could have paid for climate-induced economic losses suffered by a group of 58 vulnerable nations known as the V20 between 2000 and 2019 and had almost $30 trillion left over in profits. The cost of damages in the V20 was $525 billion - just 1.7% of the industry’s profits.
That’s according to a briefing, endorsed by 24 NGOs and prefaced by Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley, calling on wealthy nations to agree to a new fund at Cop27 to help climate victims in developing countries recover from climate impacts.
Economic losses caused by climate change in developing countries are estimated at $290-580 billion by 2030. So far, $16m has been pledged in mechanisms outside UN Climate Change.
Tree planting won't save us
If countries follow through with ill-advised plans to plant trees on an area twice the size of India by 2060, they could unleash disastrous food shortages and the loss of rights of indigenous peoples, the Land Gap report warns.
The report highlights the gap between what land can realistically do for the climate and the extent to which countries are relying on land to soak up carbon, which it describes as "unrealistic". Instead of mass tree planting, governments should protect existing forests and reduce fossil fuel use.
Governments plan to reforest 0.6 billion hectares and restore 0.5 billion, they find. Together, that's an area not too far off the 1.6bn hectares currently used for all the world's crops and about four times the size of India.
Adaptation spending is not keeping up with needs
The gap between the money needed to adapt to climate change and the money actually flowing is called the "adaptation gap" and the United Nations reports on it each year.
It finds the gap is growing. In 2020, adaptation finance to developing countries was around $29 billion. That's nowhere near what they need to spend on projects like seawalls, storm forecasts and drought-resistant crops, which has been estimated at around $202 billion a year in the 2020s, $160-340 billion a year by 2030 and $315-565 billion by 2050.
Developed countries have promised to collectively deliver $40 billion in adaptation finance by 2025. A group of self-described "adaptation champion" countries has tasked itself with ensuring this goal is met, unlike the $100bn by 2020 goal.
It's not just quantity that matters though. The UN says "adaptation practice falls woefully short of what is required". Spending often ignores poorer people and women and is short-sighted. Seawalls, for example, can protect one community while making erosion worse for the (often poorer) neighbourhood next door.