Actions to limit climate change and avert disaster are falling far short, U.N. report says

When government representatives of nearly every nation in the world meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 6 to attend the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP27, they will be gathering under a cloud.

A new report from the U.N. finds that the pledges made to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avert the worst consequences of climate change are falling far short of their goal.

Only 24 of the 193 countries that signed on to a 2021 agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, to “revisit and strengthen” their commitments this year have done so, the report concluded. A year ago, the world was on track for emissions to increase 13.7% from 2010 levels by 2030, according to an estimate in the 2021 NDC (nationally determined contributions) synthesis report from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to the NDC synthesis report released Wednesday, emissions will rise by 10.6% by 2030.

With less than two weeks to go before the next round of negotiations, the world’s nations remain far off the trajectory that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change: a 50% cut in emissions by 2030.

The resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh will host the COP27 summit next month
The Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh will host the COP27 summit next month. (Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)

The IPCC has found that limiting warming to 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary to prevent devastating effects of climate change that will usher in a series of dangerous feedback loops, such as massive rainforest dieback and glacial melting, resulting in even warmer temperatures. But the pledges made in Glasgow would only limit warming — which has already reached 1.1°C (2°F) — to 2.2°C if all the latest pledges are fulfilled and 2.7°C based on the current policies actually in place, according to the U.N. The latest synthesis report shows little improvement, as it finds the current national plans put the world on track for 2.1°C to 2.9°C warming by 2100.

“The downward trend in emissions expected by 2030 shows that nations have made some progress this year,” said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, in a statement accompanying the report. “But the science is clear and so are our climate goals under the Paris Agreement. We are still nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5°C world. To keep this goal alive, national governments need to strengthen their climate action plans now and implement them in the next eight years.”

For a small island nation like Barbados, the warming estimates in the new U.N. assessment present an existential threat.

“Two degrees is a death sentence,” the country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley, said in Glasgow.

Nearly all the participants at COP26 readily acknowledged the need to strengthen the pledges made to cut emissions.

“[The actions in Glasgow] take important steps, but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a video statement released at the end of last year’s conference. “We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. ... COP27 starts now.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres speaking in Glasgow, Scotland, November 2021. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

“It’s all very well for leaders to claim they have a net-zero target, but if they have no plans as to how to get there, and their 2030 targets are as low as so many of them are, then frankly, these net-zero targets are just lip service to real climate action. Glasgow has a serious credibility gap,” said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, a nonprofit research organization, near the conclusion of last year’s conference.

Representatives of small island nations in the Pacific Ocean, many of which could become uninhabitable if climate change continues unabated, expressed disappointment during Glasgow’s closing session. “Our land is fast disappearing: Tuvalu is literally sinking. We must take action now,” said Seve Paeniu, Tuvalu’s finance minister.

And so they and their allies in the climate activist community called for a new round of action in 2022. “Countries must come to COP27 with plans consistent with the 1.5°C goal that is the red line for our region,” Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s COP26 Pacific delegate Shiva Gounden said in Glasgow. “Anything less will be another betrayal of the brave and resilient peoples of the Pacific.”

Typically, negotiations for new agreements happen once every five years or so — Glasgow’s agreement was preceded by the Paris climate agreement of 2015 and the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. (COP26 was originally supposed to happen in 2020, but was delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.) The annual conferences in between are usually smaller affairs, dedicated to implementation and measurement of the agreement, not high-stakes negotiations over new actions. But activists and representatives of the most vulnerable nations have been saying since COP26 that COP27 will have to break with that tradition and usher in a round of more powerful measures to relinquish fossil fuels and bend the world’s emissions trajectory further downward and faster.

protesters march in Brussels prior to the U.N. Climate Summit
About 25,000 protesters march in Brussels prior to the U.N. Climate Change Conference, Oct. 23. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In July, leaders of nations in the Pacific Island Forum called on high-emissions countries to submit plans for larger emissions reductions before COP27. And now, with COP27 approaching, Guterres is banging the drum for nations to step up with stronger pledges of emissions reductions and the policies to ensure they meet those benchmarks. “Taken together, current pledges and policies are shutting the door on our chance to limit global temperature rise to 2°C, let alone meet the 1.5°C goal,” Guterres said at a press conference at U.N. headquarters in New York City earlier this month. “On every climate front, the only solution is decisive action in solidarity. COP27 is the place for all countries — led by the G-20 — to show they are in this fight and in it together.” The G-20 refers to the world’s 20 largest economies, which are collectively responsible for roughly 75% of current carbon emissions.

Some of these calls for stepped-up action have come from within the richest nations themselves. In March, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament called on the European Union and all G-20 nations “to commit to more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets ahead of COP27.”

But experts say those hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled. Instead, they say, countries will mostly focus on trying to close the gap between their already existing but insufficient promises to reduce emissions drastically in the next few decades and their policies that do not yet ensure they will make it there. For example, a country that pledged to to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but did not pledge to make the 50% cut by 2030, and also did not have a real plan to get to net zero by midcentury, might announce at COP27 that it will create, say, a new solar subsidy program that will help it phase out fossil fuels.

A chimney from the Linden Cogeneration Plant in New Jersey
A chimney at the Linden Cogeneration Plant in New Jersey. (Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

To be sure, a few key countries have updated their NDCs since Glasgow. In August, India increased its clean energy deployment targets, but it continues to avoid committing to specific emissions levels. Australia, after a change in government, released a new NDC that promises to cut emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030, up from the previous pledge of a 26%-28% cut. And all eyes are on Brazil, where the Oct. 31 election runoff could install a more pro-environment president who has promised to strengthen the country's climate plans.

“Australia increased its targets,” Peter Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, told Yahoo News. “India as well updated their NDC. Egypt updated its NDC. So you have some countries take steps in that direction. But I think that for other countries like the United States, who set what they feel to be ambitious but achievable targets just a year ago, their contributions are going to be additionally through implementation and trying to accelerate their path to their target as much as possible. That’s where the momentum is.”

Then there’s the internal politics of individual nations such as China, the world’s most populous country and largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In Glasgow, China promised to achieve carbon neutrality only by 2060, 10 years after the United States and most other top emitters.

Historically, as a much poorer country than the United States and many European countries, China has resisted making equivalent climate commitments to those from countries that grew rich through carbon-heavy industrialization and continue to have much higher emissions than China does per capita. In what was considered a major diplomatic breakthrough in Glasgow, China and the U.S. announced an agreement to jointly reduce their methane emissions and make their best efforts to phase down the use of coal in this decade.

“There’s no way to do the math that doesn’t have China significantly cutting its emissions this decade if we’re going to have a chance” of staying below 1.5°C, said Jake Schmidt, who directs the international climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A resident fishes as coal fired power plant is in operation on November 11, 2021 in Hanchuan, Hubei province, China. (Stringer/Getty Images)
A coal-fired power plant in Hanchuan, China. (Stringer/Getty Images)

But now, China’s relationship with the United States and much of the West is badly strained, over everything from its territorial claim to Taiwan to its alignment with Russia. “I think [it is] not likely for COP27,” Schmidt said about China making new climate commitments this year. “I think the U.S.-China spat over Taiwan is kind of muddying the waters a little bit.”

Schmidt is less pessimistic about the prospect of China reducing its emissions fast enough in the years ahead than he is about it pledging to do so in Egypt this year, noting that China may actually institute those policies domestically anyway. But the hopes that COP27 will end with a triumphant new agreement that closes the emissions gap is going to be unfulfilled if China doesn't step forward.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also made it more difficult for some countries to make new plans to reduce fossil fuel production. As European countries seek alternatives to Russian gas, they are exploring new ways of importing gas from other nations, including the United States and those in Africa.

But at least one thing has gone right recently in the fight against climate change. The U.S., the world’s largest cumulative carbon polluter, took its first major legislative action to reduce emissions when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. The legislation includes $369 billion for deploying clean energy technology and electrifying sectors like transportation and heating over 10 years, setting the country on a path toward a 40% emissions reduction by 2030.

“The U.S. beginning to show that it has a trajectory to meet more ambitious climate targets is fundamental to the international response to climate change,” Schmidt said. “The Chinese, other countries, they rightly have been pointing out that the U.S. talks a big game but has yet to deliver. So this gives the U.S. a much stronger foot to show that they are serious about climate change.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images