United Nations Warns of ‘Catastrophic Pathway’ With Current Climate Pledges

The global average temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by century’s end even if all countries meet their promised emissions cuts, a rise that is likely to worsen extreme wildfires, droughts and floods, the United Nations said in a report…

The global average temperature will rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by century’s end even if all countries meet their promised emissions cuts, a rise that is likely to worsen extreme wildfires, droughts and floods, the United Nations said in a report on Friday.

That level of warming, measured against preindustrial levels, is likely to increase the frequency of deadly heat waves and threaten coastal cities with rising sea levels, the country-by-country analysis concluded.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said it shows “the world is on a catastrophic pathway.”

Perhaps most starkly, the new report displayed the large gap between what the scientific consensus urges world leaders to do and what those leaders have been willing to do so far. Emissions of planet-warming gases are poised to grow by 16 percent during this decade compared with 2010 levels, even as the latest scientific research indicates that they need to decrease by at least a quarter by 2030 to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

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Mr. Guterres is likely to drive home the sense of urgency next week when the world’s presidents and prime ministers gather for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. It will continue to loom over the meeting of the 20 largest economies, known as the Group of 20, at their gathering in Rome in late October, and then be the focus of the United Nations-led international climate talks in November in Scotland.

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António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, will host a meeting on Monday to encourage countries to strengthen their climate pledges.
António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, will host a meeting on Monday to encourage countries to strengthen their climate pledges.Credit…Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Talks don’t always yield results, though, as was made clear at a virtual meeting that President Biden hosted Friday, designed to nudge countries to make more ambitious pledges. Several key countries with high emissions, notably China, sent midlevel envoys.

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“Now science is shouting from the rooftops that it’s time to level up actions in an order of magnitude sufficient to the challenge,” Christiana Figueres, a former head of the United Nations climate agency, said in a statement. “All other geopolitical issues will fade into irrelevance if we fail to rise to the existential challenge that climate change presents.”

Altogether, nearly 200 countries have made voluntary pledges to reduce or slow down emissions of planet warming gases under the Paris agreement, reached in 2015 with the aim of averting the worst climate impacts. Some countries have since strengthened their pledges, including some of the world’s biggest emitters, like the United States, Britain and the European Union.

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But still missing are new pledges from 70 countries, including China, which currently produces the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as Saudi Arabia and India, both large economies with a significant climate footprint. Brazil, Mexico and Russia submitted new pledges that have weaker emissions targets than their previous ones.

All those pledges, taken together, are far short of what’s needed to limit global temperature rise to levels that would avert the worst impacts of warming, the report confirms. When it was reached in 2015, the Paris Agreement set a target of limiting average temperature rise compared with preindustrial levels to well below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the end of the century.

Since then, because of advances in research, the scientific consensus is that the rise needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees C; beyond that threshold, there is a far greater likelihood of devastating consequences, like widespread crop failures and collapse of the polar ice sheets. So far, global temperatures have risen about 1 degree C since the late 19th century.

For its part, the United States, which has produced the largest share of global emissions since the beginning of the industrial age, has pledged to cut its emissions by 50 percent to 52 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade, a target that is shy of the commitments of the European Union and Britain.

But it is already proving to be difficult, especially politically, and it remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden will be able to persuade members of Congress to support major climate legislation before he goes to the international climate talks in November.

At the White House meeting Friday, known as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, Mr. Biden implored the leaders of nine countries and the European Commission to act faster and more aggressively to slash greenhouse gases. He also announced that the United States and Europe have pledged to help reduce methane emissions 30 percent globally by 2030 and asked other nations to join that effort. Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.

“I need to tell you the consequences of inaction,” Mr. Biden said.

Pointing to recent extreme weather events including hurricanes, floods and wildfires around the country, flooding across Germany and Belgium, fires raging in Australia and Russia, and a record temperature in the Arctic Circle, Mr. Biden told leaders: “We don’t have a lot of time.”

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A recent analysis by Climate Action Tracker found that no major emitters have a climate pledge in keeping with the 1.5 degree target. Several countries, including Britain and the European Union, are close. The United States is not.

“Governments are letting vested interests call the climate shots, rather than serving the global community,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said in a statement.

The timing of the synthesis report, as it’s called, is as important as its content. The next round of international climate talks are barely six weeks away and there is still uncertainty around who can attend considering travel restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. It is unclear if some of the world’s biggest economies, including China and India, will announce new climate pledges by then.

A separate analysis released this week, by the Washington-based World Resources Institute, found that actions by the world’s 20 largest economies are key to slowing down global climate change. The 20 economies contribute 75 percent of global emissions.

On Monday, Mr. Guterres is scheduled to host another meeting, also aimed at encouraging all countries to ratchet up their climate pledges before or at the talks in Glasgow, known as the 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties, or COP26. He will also encourage rich countries to keep their promise to help poorer countries deal with the impacts of climate change.

“There is a high risk of failure of COP26,” Mr. Guterres warned Friday. “It is clear that everyone must assume their responsibilities.”

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

Somini Sengupta is an international climate correspondent. She has also covered the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia for The Times and received the 2003 George Polk Award for her work in Congo, Liberia and other conflict zones. @SominiSengupta • Facebook