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UN climate report calls for urgent change across systems as goals remain unmet

Steam and exhaust rise from the power plant of STEAG on a cold winter day on Jan. 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)
Steam and exhaust rise from the power plant of STEAG on a cold winter day on Jan. 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

The United Nations Environmental Programme is calling for an “urgent system-wide transformation” to avoid climate disaster.

The UN’s 2022 Emissions Gap Report, released Thursday morning, states that climate plans submitted since COP26 have made virtually no impact on global emissions projections and that the world is on track for warming of 2.8 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Previously established goals under the 2015 Paris Accords to keep warming within 2 degrees Celsius are no longer viable. At this point, these measures would still result in a projected 2.4 to 2.6 degrees of warming.

UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen emphasizes that current trends will result in uninhabitability of parts of the planet and an influx in climate refugees, among other problems.

We’re heading right now to a 2.8 degree world. And we can take some actions that we’ve promised and we think we’ve made a big dent, but [even with these actions] we will arrive at [a] 2.6 degree world by 2100,” Andersen says. “So there is a long way to go.” 

But blame is not shared equally. Globally, emissions are inequitable. The top 20 national emitters account for 75% of all emissions. The top seven alone account for 55%. The United States produces more than double the global average of CO2 emissions, while the least developed nations produce roughly one-third of the average.

Within individual nations, the report acknowledges, are more inequities in consumption and emissions. The top 1% of consumption households pollute substantially more than the bottom 50% of households.This is an issue of environmental justice and steep, entrenched economic disparity. Andersen calls for a global economic about-face.

“We understand that short term profits drive growth. But we’re not taking into account how that is, in a way, sawing over the very branch in which we are sitting,” she says. “Because what we want is vibrant ecosystems that can actually deliver harvests and food. What we want is vibrant fisheries where we don’t fish the oceans empty. And what we want is, obviously, forests that are vibrant and deliver timber and products that we need, but not at the expense of being carbon sinks. And so rethinking GDP and rethinking nature as an asset class.” 

Interview Highlights

On the action that must be taken

“What has to happen is system shift. So what does that really mean? Well, it means that in the electricity sector — which accounts for nearly half at 42% of all energy related emissions — we need to shift that to zero carbon power. We need to get to an increase of renewable in the energy sector. And I’m speaking globally, of course.

“The transport sector similarly so; That’s the second largest source of energy related CO2 emissions. And here we need to ensure that we invest in e-vehicles and, of course, that we invest in public transport as well.

“Similarly for building sector. This is an obvious one and just one for the picking. And it’s so frustrating that countries haven’t done that yet because let’s think about it. We are already regulating for earthquakes and fires and so on. Why can’t we regulate for energy intensity?

“Then there are the food systems where we need to be sure that we have lesser emissions from organic, rotting food and of course industry itself. So these are the areas, but let’s think about it this way: doing these actions will create great economic growth. So we just need to reach for it and not be beholden to the past.”

On the need for global economic transformation

“I will say that already some banks in some countries and some central bank regulators have begun to deal with this and understand that a banking sector that has invested heavily in hydrocarbon is not a safe banking sector. Doing these health tech checks and stress tests on our banks and on our financial system so that we do not enter into a climate related financial crisis 20 years from now, when we see that these assets are no longer producing the value that we thought they would.”

On global emissions inequities

“It is a clear issue of inequity and climate injustice. The 20 largest economies are responsible for 75% of global emissions. So if these 20 economies lean in and do the right thing, actually we are a long, long way towards the solution.”

On what 2.8 degrees of warming might look like

“It’s actually a future that’s very hard to fathom. But it would mean that the kind of wildfires, the kind of droughts, the kind of inundations, the ferocity of the storms that we have been seeing will be greater, more frequent and with greater intensity and damage. People have to move from low-lying areas. Property would no longer have value in a number of places. And we will see at the global-scale significant people movement, climate migrants or climate refugees. And some places would become uninhabitable. It is a sort of apocalyptic future that I’m painting here and not one that I would wish our grandchildren to go into.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe BullardDevin Speak adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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