World falling behind on 2020 emission-reduction goals

UN agency says ‘window of opportunity’ to prevent devastating effects of climate change is closing

Smoke rises from a factory in Haubourdin in northern France, Oct. 31.
Phillipe Huguen/AFP/Getty

The "window of opportunity" is closing on the global goal of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid the devastating effects of climate change by 2020, a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report said Tuesday.

The world will fall 8 to 12 billion tons short of a 2010 goal set to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the UNEP's annual emission-gap report.

"The window of opportunity of trying to meet this 2-degree target threshold is, in a sense, becoming ever more elusive," U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said during a press conference in Berlin Tuesday morning.

The report analyzed countries' pledges for emission cuts and assessed whether they are adequate to achieve global emission-reduction imperatives. This year the UNEP found the gap — the difference between the pledges and the reductions that scientists estimate are needed by 2020 to avoid potentially devastating effects of global warming — little changed from last year's estimate of 8 to 13 billion tons.

Under the 2009 Copenhagen and 2010 Cancun agreements, countries agreed to take action to limit temperature rises, but many countries have failed to enact emission cuts to back up their promises.

Contrary to UNEP assurances that the goals outlined in 2010 are still technically possible, some analysts say the 2-degree goal is overly optimistic.

"Achieving the 2-degree goal is with every year less possible. Emissions always rise, even though they need to sink sharply," German Institute for International and Security Affairs researcher Oliver Geden told Agence France-Presse.

He called the 2-degree target "patently unrealistic" and urged that it be dropped or modified.

Hopes for Warsaw

Delegates from more than 190 countries will meet in Warsaw, Poland, next week for a U.N. conference to work on emission cuts under a new climate pact, which will be signed by 2015 but will not take effect until 2020.

Scientists have said annual emissions should not exceed about 44 billion tons, or 44 gigatons, per year by 2020 to have a good chance of limiting the overall temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

Global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2010 amounted to 50.1 gigatons, indicating the scale of the task ahead.

Steiner warned against delayed action and implored the world to provide financial support to developing countries to preclude their adoption of fossil fuels.

"If Africa is by default forced to go down the fossil-fuel path, we are adding an entire China economy to the global carbon budget, to the global oil and gas markets, in just the next 20 or 30 years," he said.

Studies have shown that emissions could be reduced by 14 to 20 gigatons per year at a cost of up to $100 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent if pledges were more ambitious and were expanded to include all countries and more industries, the report said.

The UNEP cited increased energy efficiency, renewable energy, improved agricultural practices and reforming fossil-fuel subsidies as ways to bring down emissions.

"As we head towards Warsaw for the latest round of climate negotiations, there is a real need for increased ambition by all countries: ambition which can take countries further and faster towards bridging the emissions gap and a sustainable future for all," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, in a statement.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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