Running out of time: UN report shows Earth on catastrophic path
The secretary-general of the United Nations on Friday excoriated members for choosing a “catastrophic pathway” on climate change that is leading to a “massive loss of lives and livelihoods.”
Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who’s led the UN since 2017, responded to new estimates showing just how far behind countries are in fighting climate change. The UN report estimates how much the world will warm if nations implement their stated commitments under the Paris Agreement signed in 2015.
The dire course that Guterres described would take the world to a 2.7-degree Celsius rise in average temperatures by the century’s end.
“This is breaking the promise made six years ago to pursue the 1.5-degree Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement,” Guterres said in a statement. “Failure to meet this goal will be measured in the massive loss of lives and livelihoods.”
Scientists have been increasingly vocal and specific about what will happen if the global temperature continues to rise. These predicted changes include everything from heat waves, wildfires, and flooding — already evident today — to conditions that may render coastal cities too wet and tropics too hot for sustained settlement.
Governments and citizens would be forced to reorder society and economies in a chaotic world.
“Action or inaction by G20 countries will largely determine whether we can avoid the most dangerous and costly impacts of climate change,” Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the research group World Resources Institute, said on Twitter.
As a part of the Paris Agreement, each member country agreed to policy goals, referred to as Nationally Determined Contributions. Friday’s UN report adds them up and extrapolates the rate of both emissions and warming. By 2030, the authors found, pollution is expected to increase by 16% above the 2010 level, which was 47 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions.
There are caveats to the latest figures. More than 70 countries have yet to submit revised plans that could lower the estimate for 2100. Four of those laggards make up a third of G20 emissions: China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The emissions goals also may not reflect all climate commitments, such as some countries’ efforts to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, said Mountford. WRI on Friday issued an analysis suggesting that if the G20 countries all reached net-zero emissions by 2050, warming could be limited to 1.7 degree Celsius.
The global average temperature has risen by 1.1 degree Celsius since industrialization began, which is hotter than the planet has been in 125,000 years. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are higher than they have been in 2 million years, according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in August.
Guterres called that study a “code red for humanity” that “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet.”
The new review comes six weeks before the UN’s Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, Scotland, which is the world’s main venue for coordinated efforts to cut emissions.
Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organizes the talks, said countries could update their plans any time. The body will publish an updated report Oct. 25.
“Those nations which have submitted new and ambitious climate plans are already bending the curve of emissions downwards,” said Alok Sharma, the Glasgow conference’s president. “But without action from all countries, especially the biggest economies, these efforts risk being in vain.”