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Emissions Gap Report 2020

Emissions Gap Report 2020




The UN Environment Emissions Gap Report has become an important and authoritative waymark in the annual round of climate change reports and meetings. The latest edition was published on 9 December. For anyone who has been on Mars for the past month, I summarise the main points below. But mainly, I want to draw attention to the important chapter on behaviour change in this year’s report. Declaration of interest: I have sat on the EGR Steering Committee since 2012.

So, the main points, widely reported in the press, and consistent with a number of other recent reports:

  • CO2 emissions fell a little in 2020 compared to 2019, because of COVID, perhaps by 7%, but not by enough to stop atmospheric concentrations continuing to rise.

  • Current commitments fall dramatically short of those required for the world to be on a least-cost pathway to the various Paris temperature targets. The ‘gap’ remains substantial between commitments and what is needed (Figure 1). The temperature forecast implied by formal current commitments is over 3O C.

  • Many countries, over 120 at the last count, have committed (or are considering committing) to net zero emissions by mid-century, which is broadly consistent with Paris targets – but these commitments have not yet been translated into the radical short-term action required.

  • COVID rescue and recovery packages have not so far made much of a contribution to setting the world on a new path – but further packages could focus on low-carbon transitions, with many options available, for example in low-carbon energy and infrastructure investment, and in nature-based solutions.

  • Shipping and aviation together account for 5% of emissions, but their share is rising rapidly, driven by demand increases, which outstrip relatively modest efficiency improvements.

  • Behaviour change is crucial, especially by high-income consumers, but must be backed up by a better enabling environment, or system change.

Figure 1

The report was published just a few days before the London climate ambition summit on 12 December, and just three weeks before the deadline for countries to submit revised or updated Nationally Determined Contributions to the UNFCCC. The situation with regard to commitments is therefore quite fast-moving. Thus, on 1 December, a  Report by the Climate Action Tracker confirmed that there is an urgent need for urgent, short-term action:

‘The recent wave of net zero targets has put the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C within striking distance. . .  While 2050 net zero targets are commendable, governments must now adopt stronger 2030 targets (nationally determined contributions or NDCs) to deliver on their net zero goals, and close the remaining emissions gap to 1.5°C. However, there remains little positive movement by governments to improve their 2030 NDCNational Development Council targets since Paris in 2015.’

Then, the UK submitted its NDCNational Development Council on 12 December, committing to a 68% reduction over 1990 levels by 2030; and the EU submitted its NDCNational Development Council on 18 December, committing to a 55% reduction. A revised and ambitious US NDCNational Development Council is expected from the new administration. These are all positive signs. However, Climate Action Tracker qualifies the latest China commitment as ;'highly insufficient'; and there are other countries with weak targets to watch (including Australia, Japan and South Korea). An overall assessement of all NDCs submitted by the 31 Decembe deadline is expected from the UNFCCC by the end of February..

On 2020 emissions and atmospheric concentrations, the most recent assessment, by 4C Carbon Outlook, confirms that atmospheric concentrations continue to rise:

‘In 2020, global CO₂ concentrations continued to rise, reaching 412 ppm. This was despite a drop of -7% in annual emissions compared to 2019 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The land sink was slightly weaker in 2020, thus there was a similar increase in atmospheric concentrations in 2019 and 2020.’

Can behaviour change be the way this crisis is solved? At first sight, the answer ought to be ‘yes’: we are constantly urged to eat less and/or less intensively-farmed meat, to fly less, to waste less, to recycle, and so on. However, the behaviour change chapter in EGR, led by Stuart Capstick, Radhika Khosla and Susie Wang, tells a more nuanced story.

First, it is true, household consumption accounts for around two thirds of global GHG emissions.

Second, however, not every household bears equal responsibility. The top ten per cent of income earners contribute 36-49% of the global total, the bottom 50% only 7-15% (Figure 2). About half of the top 10 per cent are in rich countries, the other half mostly in middle income countries.

Figure 2

Third, large cuts are required by everyone above global average income if a Paris-compliant target of 2.1 t CO2 per capita in 2030 is to be reached – cuts of 90% for the top 10 per cent. The poorest 50% are below the target, however, and could increase consumption by three times.

Fourth, it is certainly possible to devise alternative lifestyle arrangements, for example in transport, food and housing. The standard analytical framework is Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI): for example, travel less (avoid), travel by train rather than plane (shift), or increase fuel efficiency (improve). The chapter gives many practical examples.

Fifth, however, it is a mistake to assume that individuals can achieve lifestyle changes without institutional and cultural change. At the most basic level, ‘system change’ means, for example, providing low carbon transport infrastructure so that people have alternatives to cars or planes. Incentives play a role, as for example in subsidies for electric cars or home insulation. More fundamentally, however, people respond to culture and social influence, for example if there is a critical mass of people making lifestyle changes. See Figure 3 on the various mechanism to change lifestyles. In this context, citizen participation is key. As the report concludes:

‘Ultimately, the accomplishment of low-carbon lifestyles will require deep-rooted changes to socioeconomic systems and cultural conventions. The participation of actors and groups across civil society, as well as government, is needed to ensure this happens in a way that preserves people’s well-being while achieving substantial and rapid cuts in GHG emissions.’

Figure 3

Point 5, in particular, is an important corrective to climate change narratives which point primarily at individual responsibility. I like Stuart Capstick’s Twitter strapline, which is ‘Dr Stuart 'individual AND system change' Capstick’. On the other hand, it is clear from the chapter that a bit of individual responsibility by the 800 million or so people in the world’s highest-income decile would not go amiss.


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