New climate pledges are weak, but it is not too late to catch up

The world has eight years to remove 28 gigatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere to meet its 1.5C goal.

A man walks past an advertisement near the venue for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, Scotland on October 30, 2021 [Reuters/Yves Herman]

Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a “now” problem. As we saw this year, climate impacts are intensifying and spreading across the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us recently that we are within striking distance of exceeding a 1.5°C temperature threshold within the next few decades.

We are in this situation because climate action so far has been characterised by weak promises, not fully delivered. As the Emissions Gap Report 2021: The Heat Is On shows, the updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, and other commitments made for 2030 but not yet submitted in an updated NDC, fall into the same trap. These commitments, which do not include net-zero pledges, only take 7.5 percent off predicted 2030 emissions.

If nations only implement unconditional NDCs and other commitments as they stand, we will likely hit global warming of about 2.7°C by the end of the century. Such an increase would, frankly, be a disaster for humanity and many other species on this planet.

To have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we have eight years to take an additional 28 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) off annual emissions, over and above what is promised in the updated NDCs and other 2030 commitments. To put this number into perspective, carbon dioxide emissions alone are expected to reach 33 gigatonnes in 2021. When all other greenhouse gases are taken into account, annual emissions are close to 60 GtCO2e. So, to have a chance of reaching the 1.5°C target, we need to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions. For the 2°C target, the additional need is lower: a drop in annual emissions of 13 GtCO2e by 2030.

To be clear, we do not have eight years to make the plans to cut emissions. We have eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them, and ultimately deliver the cuts. We are racing against the clock. Our planet, our societies and our economies are in serious trouble. The heat is on at COP26, the latest rounds of climate talks.

Worryingly, the opportunity to use pandemic recovery spending to reduce emissions has been largely missed. Only around 20 percent of recovery spending can be characterised as green. Meanwhile, developing nations are falling behind. COVID-19 spending in low-income economies is $60 per person, compared to $11,800 in advanced economies.

However, we can still catch up. The window is still open. This starts with nations putting in place the policies to meet their new commitments and start implementing them immediately as they find ways to increase ambition to the levels required. Crucially, they must look hard at how to start implementing net-zero pledges faster.

A total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net-zero target, covering over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions. If implemented effectively, net-zero targets could shave an extra 0.5°C off global warming, bringing the predicted temperature rise down to 2.2°C. However, many national climate plans delay net-zero action until after 2030.

Nations must ensure net-zero commitments are included in NDCs, and action brought forward. They must put in new policies to back this raised ambition and, again, start implementing them. It is also essential to deliver financial and technological support to developing nations so that they can both adapt to the impacts of climate change already here and set out on a low-emissions growth path.

As the Emissions Gap Report shows, many specific sectors could make a big difference. Methane, for example, has significant importance for short-term climate action. The gas has a global warming potential over 80 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon, but only lingers in the atmosphere for 12 years. Cuts to methane from the oil and gas, agriculture and waste sectors will limit temperature increase faster than cuts to carbon dioxide – and the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is very welcome.

Carbon markets, meanwhile, could help to accelerate action by decreasing mitigation costs, so it is important for nations to finalise Article 6 of the Paris Agreement on establishing effective and trustworthy markets that go beyond offsets, to emissions reductions. Finally, as previous UNEP Emissions Gap Reports have shown, there is potential in ecosystem restoration, renewables, energy efficiency and so much more.

Clearly, we have many options to step up action to limit climate change. We should not despair. We have already shown that climate action can make a difference. Policies put in place since 2010 have already brought down predicted 2030 emissions. But we need to make the difference, not a difference. We need to wake up to the imminent peril we face as a species. We need to go firm. We need to go fast. And we need to start doing it now.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.