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expert reaction to UNEP’s 2021 Emissions Gap Report

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report for 2021 has been published.


Dr Joanna Depledge, Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance (C-EENRG), said:

“The annual UNEP Emissions Gap Report is an eagerly-awaited fixture on the international climate change calendar.

“More incisive than ever, this year’s report brings into sharp focus the pivotal responsibility of G20 countries – the world’s largest economies accounting for some 80% of global emissions – whose actions (or inaction) will ultimately determine the fate of the world’s climate. 

“This is the first Emissions Gap Report to assess the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement’s “ratcheting up” mechanism, which calls on signatory countries to strengthen their emission pledges – nationally-determined contributions (or NDCs) to use the jargon – every five years.  The picture painted by the Report is grim: less than half of the NDCs received from governments are genuinely more ambitious than the first round submitted in 2015 or 2016.  In glaring contradiction to the spirit of the Paris Agreement, several G20 countries have sent in updated NDCs that are no better than their previous offering (Australia, Brazil and Mexico), or so weak as to require no further policy action (Russia).

“The report uncovers two emissions gaps: the first is an “ambition gap” between country pledges and the emission cuts needed to limit temperature rise to “well below” 2˚C and preferably 1.5˚C, the goals that all countries signed up to in the Paris Agreement.  The second – even more troubling – is an “implementation gap”: many large emitters are not even on track to meet their existing country pledges.  The Report reveals in starker terms than ever before the glaring cognitive dissonance between pledges and actions.  

“The Report finds positives amidst the downbeat tone.  Nearly 50 countries have now declared net zero targets, covering half the world’s emissions.  Crucially, the net zero club now includes the world’s top two emitters, China and the US.  This is a huge step forwards relative to last year, when the US was a climate pariah under Donald Trump, and China had yet to make its ground-breaking declaration of a 2060 net zero target to the UN General Assembly.  Since the Report went to press, two more G20 members – Saudi Arabia (by 2060) and Australia (by 2050), both of them longstanding laggards in the climate arena – have also signed up to net zero, demonstrating the power and momentum behind the “Net zero” concept.

“But the appeal of “Net zero” is also its weakness: it is a long-term target, way out into the future, potentially allowing difficult decisions to be postponed.  As the Report underlines, the concept is also vague, and must be pinned down in terms of sectors covered and offsets allowed, if it is to have any credibility.

“Overall, a net zero goal must be accompanied by immediate policy action towards ambitious 2030 targets.  Otherwise, it is mere virtue signalling.”


Prof Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science, University of Oxford, said:

“Insanity is keeping doing the same thing in the hope of getting a different outcome. On current progress, we’ll close the 2030 Emissions Gap sometime in the 2080s.

“There is no appetite for reducing fossil fuel consumption globally at the rate required to meet our climate goals. The only remaining option is to scale up safe and permanent disposal of carbon dioxide, such as by storing it back underground, instead of fly-tipping it into the atmosphere. We currently dispose of less than 0.1% of the carbon dioxide we generate: this needs to be at 10% by 2030 to be on track for 100% by 2050. This is the gap that matters, and they won’t even be talking about it in Glasgow.”


Prof Piers Forster, Professor of Climate Change and Priestley Centre Director, University of Leeds, said:

“I think this presents an overly bleak picture. It is true that the 2030 emissions gap remains but it you look at their numbers, it shows that the gap in longer term emission targets is almost closed. Further, many of the G20 nations, including the UK, now have delivery plans, so the policy gap is also beginning to close. These national plans show that the costs of action are far less than the cost of inaction, so we have it all to play for at COP to close these gaps even further.”


Dr Joeri Rogelj, Director of Research and Reader in Climate Science & Policy at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, and Lead Author on two chapters of the UNEP report, said:

“This is the first time the UNEP Emissions Gap Report dedicates a full chapter to net-zero targets. Its verdict is mixed. On the one hand, if implemented, current net zero targets would lower temperature projections by for the next century by about half a degree – bringing central estimates close to 2°C – yet still not in line with holding global warming well below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. On the other hand, the report also highlights that in many cases countries’ near-term targets are not yet putting emissions a clear track towards achieving their net-zero goals. This casts doubt on whether these targets will ever be achieved. Countries can reduce these doubts by stepping up and moving from targets, to strategies, plans, and policies, that deliver the net-zero ambitions on the ground.

“The report’s findings are fully consistent with the analysis by the UN Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) secretariat’s analysis that came out last month. Both find that pledges of countries by 2030 are most consistent with warming beyond 2.5°C by the end of the century and still increasing thereafter. 

“The UNEP Emissions Gap Report presents a more sophisticated estimate of where emissions are heading, compared to the UNFCCC NDC Synthesis Report, leading to lower estimated global emissions for 2030. Specifically, some countries pledge targets that result in emissions well above those projected based on their current policies. In such case, the UNEP Emissions Gap Report takes the lower of both estimates.”



Declared interests

Dr Joeri Rogelj: “is a Lead Author of Chapter 3 (Net-zero targets) and Chapter 4 (The Global Emissions Gap) of the UNEP Emissions Gap Report.”

Prof Piers Forster: “No competing interests.”

None others received.

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