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The fishing village of Chittagong Potenga, a coastal area of Bangladesh where a cyclone killed at least 22 people, is seen on October 25, 2022.

The fishing village of Chittagong Potenga, a coastal area of Bangladesh where a cyclone killed at least 22 people, is seen on October 25, 2022. (Photo: Mohammad Shajahan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

UN Report Shows Only 'Urgent System-Wide Transformation' Can Prevent Climate Disaster

"We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over," said the UNEP director. "Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us."

Kenny Stancil

Policymakers routinely acknowledge the need to slash greenhouse gas pollution to avert the planetary emergency's worst consequences, but their current plans for doing so are "woefully inadequate" and "only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid an accelerating climate disaster," the United Nations warned Thursday.

In its Emissions Gap Report 2022: The Closing Window, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) reiterated how the world is "falling far short" of the goals outlined in the 2015 Paris agreement. According to UNEP's annual analysis of the difference between the current trajectory of planet-heating emissions and where they should be to avoid the deadliest impacts of the climate crisis, there is "no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place," and this lack of progress necessitates a "rapid transformation of societies."

"We have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast."

The 13th edition of the report, released ahead of the upcoming COP27 climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, finds that business as usual puts the world on track for a cataclysmic 2.8°C of heating by the end of the century.

If emissions reduction targets for 2030 are met, UNEP notes, people would still suffer on a planet that is 2.4 to 2.6°C hotter than the preindustrial average. If countries fulfill their long-term pledges to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, global warming might be limited to 1.8°C, though UNEP says the sluggish pace of action so far means that such a scenario is "not currently credible."

Temperature rise of 1°C to date has already unleashed catastrophic extreme weather across the globe, including in Nigeria, Pakistan, and many other places this year.

"The reports keep coming and the message keeps getting more urgent: rich nations must supercharge action to cut emissions this decade," Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said in a statement. "Governments say they are committed to limiting warming to 1.5°C but those words are totally meaningless without the action to deliver on it. This latest analysis should put a rocket under politicians at home and around the world."

Despite the glaring insufficiency of existing plans and investments, only about two dozen governments have followed through on an agreement to strengthen near-term Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) since last year's COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. These new pledges, UNEP notes, would shave less than 1% off projected 2030 global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To keep the 1.5°C goal within reach, global GHG pollution must be cut by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, and "emissions must continue to decline rapidly after 2030 to avoid exhausting the remaining atmospheric carbon budget," says UNEP.

However, emissions are expected to climb by more than 10% over the 2010 baseline by the end of the decade barring fundamental changes, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change warned Wednesday in a similarly stark assessment.

According to UNEP, current NDCs, if met, would result in only a slight improvement over the status quo, reducing planet-wrecking pollution by 5% to 10% compared with what existing policies would deliver.

"This report tells us in cold scientific terms what nature has been telling us, all year, through deadly floods, storms, and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast," UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said in a statement.

UNEP's report comes one day after the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned that atmospheric concentrations of the three main greenhouse gases heating up the planet— carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—all hit record highs in 2021.

"We need to transform our industrial, energy, and transport systems and whole way of life," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. "The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible. Time is running out."

Anderson echoed her U.N. colleague on Thursday, saying: "We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster."

"Solutions to transform societies exist, but the time for collective, multilateral action is now," UNEP stresses. "Transforming the electricity supply, industry, transport, and buildings sectors, and the food and financial systems would help put the world on a path to success."

"Every fraction of a degree matters: to vulnerable communities, to species and ecosystems, and to every one of us."

To achieve "unprecedented" levels of GHG reductions, UNEP recommends "avoiding lock-in of new fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure," echoing a study published this week which found "large consensus" across all published research that new oil and gas fields are "incompatible" with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

The International Energy Agency—which reached the same conclusion last year—predicted for the first time in its annual World Energy Outlook, also published on Thursday, that global demand for every kind of fossil fuel will "peak or plateau" in the near future, prompting activists to reiterate their calls for a swift and just transition to renewable energy sources.

UNEP also calls for the widespread adoption of "zero-carbon industrial processes," "zero-emissions transportation infrastructure," and "zero-carbon building stock."

In addition, "food systems, which account for one-third of all emissions, can be reformed to deliver rapid and lasting cuts," says UNEP, which recommends reduced meat and dairy consumption, more sustainable production practices, and decarbonization of the food supply chain.

Finally, "the financial system must overcome internal and external constraints to become a critical enabler of transformation across all sectors," UNEP argues.

According to the organization:

A global transformation to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investments of at least $4-6 trillion a year. This is a relatively small (1.5-2%) share of total financial assets managed, but significant (20-28%) in terms of additional annual resources needed.

Delivering such funding will require a transformation of the financial system and its structures and processes, engaging governments, central banks, commercial banks, institutional investors, and other financial actors.

"It is a tall, and some would say impossible, order to reform the global economy and almost halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but we must try," said Andersen. "Every fraction of a degree matters: to vulnerable communities, to species and ecosystems, and to every one of us."

"Even if we don't meet our 2030 goals, we must strive to get as close as possible to 1.5°C," she added. "This means setting up the foundations of a net-zero future: one that will allow us to bring down temperature overshoots and deliver many other social and environmental benefits, like clean air, green jobs, and universal energy access."

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