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UN says national climate pledges “nowhere close” to limiting climate change to 1.5°C

26 February 2021 Karin Rives

In its first five-year scorecard of the landmark Paris Agreement, the United Nation's (UN) climate agency warned 26 February that the 48 updated carbon reduction pledges that nations submitted by a 31 December 2020, deadline "fall far short of what is required" after finding they will only cut emissions by a paltry 2.8% by 2030.

To limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change, scientists say the 192 nations that are parties to the climate accord must cut emissions by at least 55% below 2005 levels in the next decade. But with several large emitters, including the US and China, yet to declare their goals for 2030, the picture could brighten, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change acknowledged in its report.

A number of nations, including China and the US, have promised to submit more ambitious and detailed pledges later this year that could move the needle forward.

The UN report ramps up the pressure on the Biden administration to commit to as much as a 50% cut in emissions when it submits its pledge—known as a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)—in April. While a tough goal, environmental advocates argue it can be met because the US is already on a path to reducing its emissions by 25% with the rapid shift away from coal-generated electricity and steady energy efficiency improvements.

"A make-it-or-break-it year"

UN Secretary-General António Guterres on 26 February called the NDC stock-taking "a red alert for our planet" and urged nations with large carbon footprints to boost their commitments ahead of the international COP26 climate conference to be held in the UK in November.

"The major emitters must step up with much more ambitious emissions reductions targets for 2030 in their [NDCs] well before the November UN Climate Conference in Glasgow," he said. "2021 is a make-or-break year to confront the global climate emergency."

When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, parties acknowledged they would need to step up their ambitions within five years to avoid runaway climate change; this report is the first official assessment of how well countries did. A number of parties to the treaty did, in fact, commit to more ambitious goals by the end of 2020, including the 27-member European Union, which recently upped its target to a 55% emission reduction by 2030 from 40%.

But Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore-each large economies--submitted the same pledges they offered five years ago, while Brazil and Mexico have actually weakened their NDCs since 2015, according to analysis by the World Resources Institute.

As a result, "governments are nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5°C and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement," Guterres said.

What does "net-zero" really mean?

Importantly, there are still 80 nations, accounting for some 70% of the world's total emissions, that have not yet submitted their plans, but have promised more ambitious NDCs. These include China and the US most noticeably.

President Xi Jinping last fall said China would implement new policies to try to reach peak emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060, goals that will be reflected in the NDC that China is expected to submit later this year. The nation of 1.4 billion people until then had only committed to lowering its carbon intensity, or the emissions it produces per unit of its GDP, by 60-65% by 2030 and increasing non-fossil fuel-based energy to 20% of total consumption. (See IHS Markit coverage here.)

While China and a number of nations have now committed to net-zero emissions several decades into the future, few have interim targets or shown policy commitments that align with such targets, noted Helen Mountford, vice president of WRI's Climate and Economics program.

The US "should set an ambitious and attainable 2030 emission reduction target of 50%, while China should peak its emissions by 2026, which our research shows is possible, as well as rein in its non-[carbon dioxide] pollution," she said in a statement.

A recent report by IHS Markit also noted that national net-zero pledges differ greatly when it comes to approach and implementation, which could ultimately affect their outcome. Only 20% of the 100-plus nations that have pledged to be carbon neutral by mid-century, for example, have yet to outline long-term plans for how to get there and there is no agreement on what "net-zero" means, it said.

"Net-zero goals differ in GHG coverage and time frame," the IHS Markit analysis found. "China's net-zero target covers only CO2 emissions; the EU's and the United Kingdom's targets cover all GHGs; and New Zealand's net-zero target covers all GHGs, except biogenic methane."

All eyes now on the US

With the US back in the Paris Agreement fold and former Secretary of State John Kerry appointed to be the Biden administration's international climate czar, expectations are high that emissions reduction ambitions will get a boost. The first test of that will be at a virtual climate summit President Joe Biden will host on Earth Day, which falls on April 22.

The US intends to announce its revised national determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement prior to this summit, Kerry said a month earlier when Biden unveiled his blueprint for dealing with the climate crisis.

He has called for a fossil-free electricity sector by 2035, and his administration is already working on a rulemaking to toughen national fuel economy standards for motor vehicles, with a formal notice of proposed rulemaking reportedly expected as soon as March or April.

Biden requested the US' re-entry into the global climate treaty his first day in office, and the country became a Paris Agreement party again on 19 February. The Trump administration had pulled the country out of the pact, arguing that it would undermine the US economy and put America "at a permanent disadvantage."

The US remains the world's second-largest emitter after China, accounting for 15% of global emissions, and ranked among 15 nations with the highest per-capita carbon footprints in 2019.


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