Despite net-zero pledges, world on track to warm 2.5 degrees Celsius, U.N. report says

GLASGOW, Scotland — After nine days of grand pronouncements, pledges and plans, scientists delivered a rude awakening to a COP26 summit that has been called “the last, best hope” for climate action: Earth is on track to warm about 2.5 degrees Celsius, exceeding the world’s shared climate goal by a full degree.

In a preliminary analysis released Tuesday, United Nations researchers found a massive gap between countries’ long-term promises to zero out carbon emissions and the official, short-term plans they have actually submitted to U.N. officials. What countries are planning to do between now and 2030 makes many net-zero pledges impossible, and would most likely lead to temperature rise of about 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

Despite a flurry of new commitments to zero out emissions, the projected level of warming by the end of the century is only about 0.1 degrees lower than before COP26 started, the “Emissions Gap” report found.

More about U.N. climate summit in Glasgow

The world has already warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution began sending fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere, U.N. officials say.

On the current warming trajectory, global sea levels will rise at least 2 feet, according to research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Almost half of the world will face regular, life-threatening heat waves. Humanity risks exceeding climate tipping points, triggering ice-sheet lost, permafrost thaw and ecosystem collapse from which there is no return.

If pledges are not boosted in the immediate future, humanity will lose its chance to limit warming to the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) that scientists and vulnerable communities increasingly say the world cannot afford to miss.

The findings come during the highly technical second week of the Glasgow summit, when diplomats huddle in windowless meeting rooms, attempting to hammer out the rules for assessing and enforcing the world’s climate goals.

But the latest projections underscore a growing frustration with the U.N. meeting: The lofty rhetoric of world leaders last week has not been followed up with concrete action. Absent real policy change and substantial new investments, the distant goal of hitting net zero looks to many like kicking the can down the road.

“We shouldn’t be blinded by long-term promises,” said Joeri Rogelj, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London and a lead author of the updated Emissions Gap report.

“If you want to achieve net-zero goals in the long term, your near-term pledges have to put you on track to deliver them,” he added. “Otherwise, there is low confidence they will ever be achieved.”

The idea of hitting “net zero” — a point at which humanity’s emissions are completely canceled out by carbon sinks — gained fire in the run-up to this year’s conference. A week before the start of COP26, some four dozen countries, including the United States and European Union, had committed to reaching net zero sometime around the middle of the century.

Recent days brought a flurry of new announcements: China aims to zero out emissions by 2060. India, by 2070.

If nations can be taken at their word, this looks like progress, if not perfection. Meeting net-zero goals would lead to temperature rise of about 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the emissions gap update. That would to bring the world much closer to the Paris agreement goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

But researchers say it’s more realistic to look at short-term pledges, which require immediate action and for which political leaders can more easily be held accountable. Here, new plans from China, Australia and Brazil, among other major emitters, don’t do much to alter the world’s trajectory.

And many of those pledges from developing nations are conditional upon support from wealthier countries. Considering only the “unconditional” plans submitted to the U.N., projected warming remains stubbornly at 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit).

“When we look at what has come in, the additional pledges, frankly it’s the elephant giving birth to a mouse,” said UN Environment Program executive director Inger Andersen. “We are not doing enough. We are not where we need to be. And we need to step up with much more action, much more urgency and much more ambition.”

The result highlights a weakness in net zero commitments, experts say. It is harder to hold politicians accountable for meeting targets that will come long after they are dead.

“The long term vision is step one,” said Niklas Höhne, a climate policy researcher at the New Climate Institute and contributor to an emissions analysis published by the nonprofit Climate Action Tracker. “That’s good progress.”

“But step one is easy,” he continued. “We need to take five more steps of that size.”

The emissions gap update is the work of 78 scientists and policy experts and draws on research from several nonprofit and academic groups, including Climate Action Tracker. It takes a relatively conservative approach to assessing global warming, focusing on what warming level the world has at least 66% chance of achieving.

By comparison, a similar analysis published last week by the International Energy Agency looked at the temperature goals humanity has a 50% shot to meet. Seen through that lens, the Paris-based group said the world could limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) if all net-zero pledges are fulfilled.

“This is a landmark moment,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol wrote in a commentary. “It is the first time that governments have come forward with targets of sufficient ambition to hold global warming to below 2 degrees C.”

Yet even the analysts behind the report noted “it’s too early to celebrate.” Regardless of which pledges are considered, all estimates are dependent on countries actually following through. On this, humanity does not have a good track record. Half of the world’s major economies have not even met their previous Paris agreement goals.

That’s why this week’s technical negotiations are so important, Rogelj said.

“It is essential to know what’s going on and hold countries accountable,” Rogelj said. “Because a lot of ambition without those strong data — even though ambition is important — it’s just woolly words, without anything solid.”

Among the issues negotiators are now attempting to sort out are requirements for countries to report their estimated emissions. A Washington Post investigation published this week found that many countries are providing unreliable data to the U.N., leading to a giant gap between reported emissions and what actually goes into the atmosphere.

Wealthy nations want to see more transparency from developing nations, asking them to report their emissions and update their climate goals more frequently than was originally set out in the Paris agreement. The goal is to make sure countries are doing what they said they would do — as well as to create more pressure to increase their ambitions.

For countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, “this is not something they agreed to in Paris, political pressure every year,” said a European negotiator, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks. “If you pressure too much, it can backfire.”

Since the entire system under discussion in Glasgow is voluntary, the negotiator warned that creating rules that will actually be used requires a delicate balance.

Right now, negotiators are “creating infrastructure for international cooperation,” the diplomat said. “But the infrastructure is only as good as the political will to use it.”

Many hard-hit countries and activists have also called for an enhanced system for updating national pledges. The rules of the Paris agreement only require countries to boost their ambition on a five year cycle.

But if the world doesn’t set new carbon cutting plans until 2025, Höhne said, 1.5 degrees Celsius goal will be permanently out of reach.

In that scenario, natural disasters would reach unheard-of intensity. Entire communities would be swallowed up by rising seas. Crop yields would decline, water would become scarce, death and displacement would become facts of life for millions of people.

“This has become a matter of life and death for the great majority of Haitians,” Haitian Environment Minister James Cadet told fellow ministers on Tuesday. “We must act here and now. If we wait it will be too late.”