UN report: Chances to limit warming are slipping away

The odds of cost-effectively avoiding the most dangerous effects of climate change will “swiftly diminish” unless countries quickly begin taking stronger steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations warned Tuesday.

The U.N. Environment Programme released its latest report on prospects for limiting global temperature increases this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would help avoid some of the most severe effects of warming.

“[A]s emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise rather than decline, it becomes less and less likely that emissions will be low enough by 2020 to be on a least-cost pathway towards meeting the 2° C target,” the report states.

“As a result, after 2020, the world will have to rely on more difficult, costlier and riskier means of meeting the target – the further from the least-cost level in 2020, the higher these costs and the greater the risks will be,” it adds.

The report looks at the “emissions gap.” That’s the difference between emissions in 2020 if nations meet their current pledges, and the lower level needed to put the world on a path to meeting the 2 degrees Celsius target.

It finds that even if nations meet their existing pledges, emissions will be far above the level needed in 2020 to get on the “least-cost pathway” to stay within the temperature target.

According to the U.N., getting on track to meet the target means emissions should be, at most, 44 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2020, with steeper cuts needed thereafter.

The world is on pace to miss that emissions goal by a mile, the report warns.

“Even if nations meet their current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway,” the U.N. said in a summary.

“[D]elayed actions means a higher rate of climate change in the near term and likely more near-term climate impacts, as well as the continued use of carbon-intensive and energy-intensive infrastructure. This ‘lock-in’ would slow down the introduction of climate-friendly technologies and narrow the developmental choices that would place the global community on the path to a sustainable, green future,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, in a statement.

But the situation isn’t hopeless, he said.

“However, the stepping stone of the 2020 target can still be achieved by strengthening current pledges and by further action, including scaling up international cooperation initiatives in areas such as energy efficiency, fossil fuel subsidy reform and renewable energy,” Steiner said, and also noted chances to cut emissions from agriculture.

The report arrives ahead of the next round of U.N.-hosted international climate talks in Poland later in November.

The goal of the rocky U.N. talks is to reach a binding global emissions accord in late 2015 that would take effect in 2020.