Pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions will lead to global warming of 2.5C, a level that would condemn the world to catastrophic climate breakdown, according to the United Nations.
Only a handful of countries have strengthened their commitments substantially in the last year, despite having promised to do so at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow last November. Deeper cuts are needed to limit temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which would avoid the worst ravages of extreme weather.
Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, said: “This does not go far enough, fast enough. This is nowhere near the scale of reductions required to put us on track to 1.5C. National governments must set new goals now and implement them in the next eight years.”
The plans for emissions cuts countries submitted in Glasgow were inadequate to meet the 1.5C goal so they agreed a “ratchet” mechanism to toughen their targets year on year. However, few governments have updated their plans on emissions in line with 1.5C.
The UN calculated on Wednesday that the plans submitted by governments would lead to a temperature rise of between 2.1C and 2.9C, with the best estimate about 2.5C. This represents a “marginal” improvement, said Stiell, on the 2.7C temperature rise that would have followed from the commitments made in Glasgow.
He said greater action was needed from the private sector as well as governments. “This is not just about words on paper, this is about getting things done,” he said. “We need to see more from the private sector and non-state actors [such as local governments].”
Australia made a significant improvement to its national plan, but only 24 countries have submitted new national plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), since Cop26. Many of those countries – including the UK and Egypt, host of the Cop27 summit that starts in just over a week – submitted new NDCs that were not substantially stronger than their previous plans.
The NDC synthesis report showed that current NDCs would lead to an increase in emissions of about 10.6% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. This is an improvement over last year’s assessment, which found that countries were on a path to increase emissions by 13.7% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.
But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by about 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, to give the world a chance of staying within 1.5C.
Stiell, formerly minister of environment for the island nation of Grenada before taking on the UN role this summer, said: “What this shows is that some progress has been made [since Cop26] but that progress is highly insufficient. We are moving forward, but every year is a critical year.”
He added: “At Glasgow last year, all countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their climate plans. The fact that only 24 new or updated climate plans were submitted since Cop26 is disappointing. Government decisions and actions must reflect the level of urgency, the gravity of the threats we are facing, and the shortness of the time we have remaining to avoid the devastating consequences of runaway climate change.”
A second UN report on long-term low-emission development strategies, also released on Wednesday, examined the plans that many countries have put in place to reach net zero emissions by or around mid-century. These plans showed that emissions could be about 68% lower in 2050 than in 2019, if all the long-term strategies are fully implemented on time.
As the climate responds to cumulative emissions, the world could still exceed the 1.5C temperature limit even if the long-term plans are met, which is why the NDCs – which focus on emissions for this decade – are so crucial.
Some governments in developed countries have privately said they believe their current NDCs are sufficiently strong and that other major emitters – including China, the world’s biggest emitter, and oil producers such as Russia and Saudi Arabia – need to step up more.
With fossil fuel prices having soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many governments have tried to increase gas supplies and some have turned to coal to solve the energy crisis.
Niklas Höhne, of the New Climate Institute, called for an increase in renewable energy generation. “Despite the huge growth in both wind and solar capacity over the past 20 years, renewables have not kept pace with the growing demand for power,” he said. “To decarbonise society, the share of zero-carbon sources in electricity generation must accelerate exponentially to tackle the climate crisis. This can only be achieved with a commensurate and rapid phase out of fossil power.”
Taryn Fransen, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, said: “These reports sound the alarm that progress on climate commitments has slowed to a crawl since the Glasgow climate summit last year. While new targets that came in from countries like Australia and Indonesia offer some momentum, on the whole national climate targets put the world on track to warm 2.4-2.6 C, which is dangerously high.”
The prospects for the Cop27 UN climate summit, hosted by the Egyptian government, which will begin in Sharm el-Sheikh on November 6, are being viewed with increasing concern. Geopolitical tensions from the Ukraine war, the energy, food price and cost of living crises around the world, and the chill between the US and China are all casting a shadow over the talks where the likelihood of major progress on emissions cuts remains small.
John Kerry, special envoy on climate to the US president, Joe Biden, used an interview with the Guardian to urge China back to the negotiating table. “We need to get to China,” he said.
Participants in the talks are hoping at least for progress on climate finance to help poor countries cut their emissions and cope with the impacts of extreme weather.