Reduced travel, industrial activity and electricity generation during COVID-19 has meant global emissions fell by up to 7% in 2020, but the impact of COVID-19 will be negligible without a green recovery, according to the United Nations.
The latest Emissions Gap Report 2020, published by the UN Environment Programme shows that, if governments introduce green recoveries, they could limit warming to 2°C and cut up to 25% off predicted greenhouse gas emissions for 2030, which are based on pre-COVID commitments.
“The expected 2020 fall in emissions translates to a 0.01°C reduction of global warming by 2050,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme, in the foreword to the report.
“Overall, we are heading for a world that is 3.2°C warmer by the end of this century, even with full implementation of unconditional nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement,” she warned.
“This dip will have an insignificant impact on the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C, and pursuing 1.5°C, unless the international community prioritises a green recovery,” she added.
The growing number of countries with net-zero emission pledges is a “significant and encouraging development,” according to the report. At its completion, there were 126 countries responsible for around half of greenhouse gas emissions, that had adopted, announced or were considering net-zero goals.
However, countries are yet to reflect these in their commitments under the Paris Agreement and must back them with rapid action, the UN report says.
While 2020 has been monumental for climate targets, it is also on track to be one of the warmest on record, with wildfires, droughts, storms and glacier melt intensifying amid a global pandemic.
COVID-19 is a warning from nature to act on climate change, nature loss and pollution, providing an opportunity to move towards a 2°C pathway, according to UNEP.
Despite a dip in CO2 emissions, the report finds governments need to invest in climate action and solidify emerging net-zero commitments with strengthened pledges at the COP 26 in Glasgow next year, to bring emissions to levels consistent with 2°C warming.
If this was combined with rapid, strong action, governments could still reach the 1.5°C warming goal.
“A green pandemic recovery can take a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions and help slow climate change. I urge governments to back a green recovery in the next stage of COVID-19 fiscal interventions and raise significantly their climate ambitions in 2021,” said Andersen.
A green recovery would also put greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 at 44 GtCO2e – far below the predicted 59 GtCO2e. This would curb the trend of the last decade, where emissions have grown an average of 1.4% per year since 2010.
However, while a quarter of G20 members have dedicated shares of spending up to 3% of GDP to low carbon measures, many G20 countries, including the EU, have recovery funds open to fossil fuels.
Shipping, aviation and consumer action
Each year, the UN emissions gap report looks at the impact of specific sectors. In 2020, it focused on shipping and aviation, which produce 5% of global emissions. Greater energy efficiency is needed to address emissions there, combined with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, the report argues.
The UN report also looked at consumer behaviour, where it says changes need to be made by the private sector and individuals.
Around two-thirds of global emissions are linked to private households, when using consumption-based accounting, with the wealthy bearing the greatest responsibility.
The report recommends replacing domestic short haul flights with rail and building infrastructure to enable cycling and car-sharing, as well as improving energy efficiency of housing and policies to reduce food waste.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]