UN: World "actively moving in the wrong direction" on climate change

The gap between the steps required to avoid “dangerous” climate change and current policies is widening and, without swift international action, global emissions will move the world further beyond a safe temperature trajectory, the UN has today warned.

According to a major new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, mankind is currently responsible for 49 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions a year, but it needs to reduce emissions to around 44Gt by the end of the decade if we are to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding temperature increases that go beyond the internationally agreed 2°C limit.

To stay on the 2°C pathway, emissions would then need to drop to 37Gt by 2030, which is roughly equivalent to 1990 levels, and then fall again to 21Gt by 2050.

However, UNEP says that based on current projections emissions are likely to reach 58Gt in eight years’ time, leaving a gap of up to 14Gt; while even if countries meet their most ambitious stated emission targets. there will still be a gap of 8Gt – a gap that has increased by 2Gt since the body’s report last year.

The report comes after the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported greenhouse gas emissions reached record levels last year and the World Bank warned the planet is on course for 4°C of warming.

“Not only have we not made progress, we are actively moving in the wrong direction,” UNEP executive director Achim Steiner told reporters this morning. “The world, having broken the speed limit, is putting its foot down on the pedal, even though it knows there is a T-junction ahead.”

Despite the dire situation, Steiner insisted it is still technically and economically feasible to bridge the emissions gap through improvements in current processes and technologies. “There is great alarm and concern about where we are in 2012, but it is not a reason to write off a 2°C target,” he said.

The report outlines potential emissions reductions of 17Gt from sectors such as buildings, power generation and transport. It says industry could deliver cuts of between 1.5Gt to 4.6Gt of CO2e, the power sector 2.2Gt to 3.9Gt, buildings 1.4Gt to 2.9Gt, and transportation, including shipping and aviation, cuts of 1.7Gt to 2.5Gt.

Joseph Alcamo, UNEP’s chief scientist, added that as global temperature increases are related to cumulative emissions rather than annual output, it is conceivable that action to reduce peak emissions could be delayed if they were followed up by stricter carbon cuts in subsequent years.

However, he strongly advised against this course of action, given the vastly increased expense and risk related to delaying action, as well as the need for a level of concerted global activity far beyond anything seen in the sector to date.

International climate negotiations have only resulted in an agreement to have a deal in place that will then come into force in 2020, but Alcamo said the world could not afford to wait until then to take action.

“[Later action] would be a bigger gamble, as we would expect bigger climate impacts and cost of impacts,” he said. “It looks like we cannot wait until 2020 to begin emission reduction.”

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