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Countries’ targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions insufficient: UNFCCC

At the current pace, 86% of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C threshold of warming could be depleted by 2030

The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) pledged by countries to arrest climate change are insufficient, noted a new report released by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Cumulative CO2 emissions in 2020-2030, based on the latest NDCs, would likely use up 86 per cent of the remaining carbon budget, according to the new NDC Synthesis Report.

The UNFCCC’s synthesis report is an annual summary of climate commitments made by countries and their impact on global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

These commitments — known as Nationally Determined Contributions  — were made by countries who signed on to the Paris Agreement to address climate change.

The latest iteration of the report analyses 166 NDCs communicated to the UNFCCC as of September 23, 2022. Some 39 countries have submitted new or updated NDCs since the previous report.

Marginal progress has been made over the past year, the report noted. The emission levels resulting from a hypothetical implementation of the latest NDCs are about 5 per cent lower in 2030, compared to the report’s previous edition.

The previous one projected emissions of 54.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2030. If implemented, the latest NDCs would lead to 52.4 GtCO2e of GHGs in 2030. And the updated NDCs point to a stronger likelihood of global emissions peaking before 2030 than the previous report.

For the countries that have made their pledges more ambitious recently, the total GHG emissions will be about 10 per cent lower in 2030 than their previous NDCs.

Updated NDCs are manifestations of the Paris Agreement’s ‘ratcheting mechanism’— wherein countries must revise their pledges to be more ambitious every five years.

The deadline was 2020. But inadequate ambition shown by the countries led to a decision at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC to revise them again in 2022, with a cutoff date of September 23, 2022.

Only 24 countries submitted new or updated NDCs after COP 26. India submitted its upwardly revised NDC in August, extending two of its previous NDC goals.

“India now stands committed to reducing emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 per cent by 2030 from its 2005 levels, according to the updated NDC,” said an official press statement.

The country will also target about 50 per cent of cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030.

But is the current level of progress consistent with the scientific consensus on ‘safe’ levels of global warming? Far from it.

Global emissions must amount to only 31 GtCO2e in 2030 (43 per cent lower in 2030 compared to 2019) to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celcius above pre-industrial levels, according to the IPCC.

Thus, we are on track to exceed this by more than 20 GtCO2e despite country commitments, assuming 52.4 GtCO2e emissions in 2030.

“Full implementation of all latest NDCs (including all conditional elements) is estimated to lead to a 3.6 (0.7-6.6) per cent emission reduction by 2030 relative to the 2019 level”, read the new report.

Conditional elements refer to NDC targets that are subject to the availability of financial, technical and other forms of support — mainly in the case of developing countries.

For example, India has made one of its new NDC targets conditional. The country will switch 50 per cent of its total power capacity to non-fossil sources by 2030. This pledge depends on the “transfer of technology and low-cost international finance, including Green Climate Fund (GCF).”

According to the NDC Synthesis report, currently, we are on track for about 2.5°C of temperature rise by 2100, from a possible range of 2.1°C to 2.9°C.

Most worrying is the impact on the carbon budget — a biophysical threshold of CO2 that can be emitted to prevent global average temperatures from rising above a certain level.

Carbon budgets are constructed on the premise that there is a near-linear relationship between rising global temperatures and the level of cumulative atmospheric CO2.

The world can emit only about 500 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) starting January 1, 2020, for a 50 per cent chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, said the latest IPCC report.

Cumulative CO2 emissions in 2020–2030, based on the latest NDCs, would likely use up 86 per cent of the remaining carbon budget, said the new NDC Synthesis Report.

Consequently, this leaves us room to emit around 70 Gt CO2 after 2030 to stay within the 1.5°C threshold — equivalent to “approximately two years of projected total global CO2 emissions by 2030”, according to the new report.

The limit of 1.5°C is not soft, as scientist Johan Rockstrom reminded the world this week. Breaching 1.5°C would lead to irreversible damage to vital planetary features such as the Greenland Ice Sheet, the west Antarctic Ice Sheet and tropical coral reefs. It can lead to more “floods, droughts, heat, disease, storms”, he said.

A second report published today by the UNFCCC summarises 53 long-term emission reduction plans submitted by countries. These plans are known as long-term low-emission development strategies (LT-LEDS).

These plans typically follow the announcement of a long-term target, such as net zero emissions by 2050 or 2070. Some 87 per cent of these plans communicated 2050 as a date along with a quantifiable long-term mitigation goal. Most NDCs (92 per cent) in the NDC Synthesis report are dated to 2030.

LT-LEDS are typically broader in scope than NDCs and incorporate developmental goals as well as required levels of investment and government expenditure, said the LT-LEDS Synthesis report.

The UNFCCC estimates the total emissions of countries who submitted LT-LEDS to be 10.8 GtCO2e, 68 per cent lower than 2019 levels. Alignment between NDCs and LT-LEDS is still unclear — only 8 per cent of countries mentioned that their NDCs are aligned with their LT-LEDS.

But 40 per cent said that their LT-LEDS would guide the development and ambition of their subsequent NDCs. LT-LEDS can be useful to guide future low-carbon development, but the criticality of front-loading emission reductions in this decade cannot be overstated.

“The downward trend in emissions expected by 2030 shows that nations have made some progress this year,” said Simon Stiell, UNFCCC executive secretary, in a press release.

“The science is clear and so are our climate goals under the Paris Agreement. 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 Simon Stiell, UNFCCC executive secretary, in a press release.  

The governments must strengthen their climate action plans and implement them in the next eight years to keep this goal alive, he added.

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