With the COP26 climate summit looming, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has issued a stark warned due to data showing global carbon dioxide emissions bouncing back to pre-Covid levels and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continuing to rise.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented 5.4% drop in global fossil carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

Data are not yet available for all greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, but the scale of the decrease is expected to be much less dramatic than the fall in fossil CO2 emissions and, ominously, a strong rebound in emissions is expected in 2021.

Preliminary estimates suggest fossil energy CO2 emissions could grow by 4.8% in 2021, and global emissions in 2021 are expected to be only slightly lower than the record level of 2019, according to the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2021 Emissions Gap Report, released on Tuesday.

“The 2021 Emissions Gap report shows that with the present Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and other firm commitments of countries around the world, we are indeed on track for a catastrophic global temperature rise of around 2.7 degrees Celsius,” said Guterres.

Speaking on the launch of the annual report, titled"The heat Is On", he said that even if the announcements of the last few days — such as the net zero pledges by Saudi Arabia and Australia — materialise, the world will still be on track to heat up by more than 2 degrees Celsius.

“We know that humanity's future depends on keeping global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. And we also know that so far parties to the Paris agreement are utterly failing to keep this target within reach,” said Guterres.

Squandering massive opportunity

Despite the large decline in CO2 emissions in 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increased by around 2.3 parts per million, in line with recent trends.

“The report also shows that countries are squandering the massive opportunity to invest Covid-19 fiscal and recovery resources in sustainable, cost-saving planet-saving ways. So far, the report estimates that only about 20% of recovery investments will support the green economy,” Guterres said.

As of 30 September, 120 countries — 121 parties, including the European Union and its 27 member states — representing just over half of global greenhouse gas emissions, had communicated new or updated NDCs.

New mitigation pledges for 2030 show some progress, but their aggregate effect on global emissions is insufficient, said UNEP.

Shout it from the roof tops

Guterres called the report, another “shuddering wake-up call”.

He cited the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that shows that unless global carbon emissions are reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 — 100 months from now — the world will not achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

Guterres said that nations need to come to COP26, which starts on Sunday in Glasgow in the UK, with “bold, time-bound, front-loaded plans” to decarbonise every sector from power, transport, farming and forestry.

“The clock is ticking. The emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap, but leaders can still make this a turning point... instead of a tipping point to climate catastrophe.”

UNFCCC report

New or updated climate action plans by governments can be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but greater efforts are needed to keep global warming at bay, the UNFCCC said in a report released on Monday.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said the NDCs “clearly represent a commitment to acting on climate change”. 

However, the update also confirmed that for all available NDCs of all 192 parties this would translate to a “sizeable increase” of around 16% in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 when compared to 2019.

Destabilised world, endless suffering

“Overshooting the temperature goals will lead to a destabilised world and endless suffering, especially among those who have contributed the least to the (greenhouse gas) emissions in the atmosphere,” said Spinoza.

“This updated report unfortunately confirms the trend already indicated in the full Synthesis Report, which is that we are nowhere near where science says we should be,” she warned.