A new report from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that the world is still not taking enough action to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. Assuming countries deliver on the pledges they have made to reduce their respective emissions, the Emissions Gap Report finds that global GHG emissions in 2020 will still be 18 to 27 percent above where they need to be if warming is likely to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This gap puts the world in a dangerous position of experiencing increased sea level rise, forest fires, and other serious impacts (see sidebar).

In fact, the UNEP report finds that delaying climate action will be more expensive, necessitate unprecedented rates of emissions reductions, and pose greater risks of surpassing dangerous levels of warming. Preventing undue economic and environmental hardships, then, requires ramping up international climate action—this decade and beyond.

Ways to Bridge the Emissions Gap

The Impacts of a 2°C World

  • Roughly 2.6 feet of sea level rise above 1980-99 by the end of the century
  • Average annual runoff decreasing 20-40% in the Danube, Mississippi, Amazon and Murray Darling river basins
  • Average annual runoff increasing about 20% in the Nile and Ganges basins
  • Forest fires almost doubling by 2050 in Amazonia with 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels
  • The risk of crossing thresholds in tipping points in the Earth system (e.g. West Antarctic ice sheet disintegration and Amazon dieback) increase
  • The frequency of bleaching events exceeds ability of coral reefs to recover

Despite the significant emissions gap, there are still ways to limit warming to 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

First, countries must follow through on the pledges they have already made. These pledges – if fully implemented – will reduce global emissions in 2020 by 3-7 GtCO2e—a reduction of 5-12 percent below business-as-usual emissions levels.

For the first time, the UNEP report included an assessment of the main policies being undertaken by 13 of the world’s largest emitters and the extent to which those parties are on track to meet their pledges. WRI experts contributed to this analysis. We found that while five of these countries are currently on track to meet their pledges, four may require further action. (For the remainder, insufficient information was available.)

The good news is that a growing number of these countries are moving forward with policies that support their emissions-reduction pledges. In June, President Obama announced a comprehensive plan to reduce emissions across the U.S. economy, and China launched an emissions trading scheme. Mexico is implementing comprehensive climate legislation, and Germany is reaping the benefits of its ambitious shift to renewable energy.

Second, the report shows that international cooperative initiatives could play a role in closing the emissions gap. The report includes a comprehensive review of the initiatives already underway—such as the international Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants. It also examines the criteria to which such initiatives should adhere in order to ensure that they contribute to closing the gap.

Third, the report outlines several other options for bridging the emissions gap – from applying more stringent accounting practices (e.g. avoiding “double-counting” of carbon offsets) to increasing the scope of pledges (e.g. reducing emissions from international transport) to implementing the higher end of those pledges that are currently framed as a range. (In some cases, countries have stated these higher-end pledges are contingent on greater provision of financial support or other conditions.)

More Action Is Needed

Ultimately, however, countries will have to aim higher if we are to limit warming to 2 degrees C. The negotiations starting next week in Warsaw have the potential to lay the foundation for securing countries’ post-2020 emissions-reduction commitments. But in addition to this long-term action, it’s important that countries make more progress in the short-term.

We’re already seeing the pathways available to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions—in the form of national clean energy policies, international cooperation “clubs,” and more. Now is the time to ramp up national and international action to shift the world onto a low-carbon development path.