UN urges a push toward low-carbon tech to avoid a climate catastrophe

On our current trajectory, we'll easily pass the Paris Agreement's 2-degree Celsius target.

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Noah Berger / reuters

The world is on a collision course towards a catastrophic 3 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. That’s the primary finding of the United Nations’ 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which its Environment Program published on Wednesday. The report details the drastic steps governments, businesses and individuals will have to undertake if the world will have any chance to meet the less than 2-degree Celsius goal laid out in the 2015 Paris Accord or the increasingly unlikely 1.5 degree Celsius target put forward by the IPCC in 2018.  

The report found that global emissions could fall up to 7 percent this year due to reduced activities like air travel during the pandemic. However, the UN estimates that dip will translate to a negligible 0.01 Celsius reduction in global temperatures by 2050, and it expects 2020 will still end up being one of the warmest years in human history. As things currently stand, the UN predicts emissions in 2030 will put the planet on a course toward a 3.2-degree Celsius increase by mid-century. And there are no two ways about it: that much of a rise in global temperatures would be catastrophic to life on Earth. Among other outcomes, there would be mass extinctions, and rising sea levels could displace as many as 275 million people globally, leading to an unprecedented migrant crisis.

The emission reduction targets or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) global governments agreed to under the Paris Accord are “woefully inadequate,” according to the UN. It says governments need to commit to targets that are at least three times as ambitious to limit the global temperature increase to 2-degrees Celsius. 

If there’s any silver lining to the report, it’s that the UN says the 2-degree target is still attainable if governments around the world commit to a “green recovery” coming out of the pandemic. Policy initiatives like the Green New Deal could reduce predicted emissions in 2030 by as much as 25 percent. By investing in zero-emission technologies, cutting back on fossil fuel subsidies, building no new coal plants and launching ambitious reforestation projects, there’s even the possibility we could course-correct toward the 1.5-degree target, provided governments move fast enough. 

Individuals, particularly those who live in the developed world, will also need to do their part. Emissions generated by the wealthiest one percent — those who earn more than $109,000 per year — of the world’s population accounts for more than twice the combined share of 50 percent of the planet’s poorest. Here, again, the right policy could mean the difference, with the UN suggesting governments should invest in incentives and programs that encourage people to cycle, travel by rail instead of plane where feasible and make their homes more energy-efficient. 

“Everybody — from governments to businesses to individual consumers — needs to work together to resolve a growing crisis that will dwarf the impacts of COVID-19 in both scale and longevity.”

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