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Looks like they got it right: the 2014 People's Climate March in New York City. Photo: South Bend Voice via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Looks like they got it right: the 2014 People's Climate March in New York City. Photo: South Bend Voice via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.
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  • UNEP's pathways for future emissions all involve substantial CO2 drawdown after 'net zero' is achieved.
    UNEP's pathways for future emissions all involve substantial CO2 drawdown after 'net zero' is achieved.

UNEP calls for world to be carbon neutral in 40 years

Helle Abelvik-Lawson / Greenpeace Energy Desk

3rd January 2014

If the world is to hit crucial climate change targets, emissions must reach 'net zero' much sooner than previously thought, by 2055-2070, writes Helle Abelvik-Lawson - and then go into reverse as we pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Delaying action until after 2020 causes a greater reliance on negative emissions, greater risk of 'economic disruption' and, crucially an even greater lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure.

A report from the United Nations suggests that the world has to be carbon neutral by 2055-2070 to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change.

The target is much sooner than the reported IPCC target of 2100, and must be hit if global temperatures are to avoid rising by more than 2 degrees.

The study suggests that whilst emissions must be net neutral by 2055-70, they also need to be net negative thereafter - suggesting a need for large-scale aforestation or carbon capture from biofuels.

The report - by the United Nations Environment Programme - examines the gap between the current emissions trajectory and scientific assessments of the cuts needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

It further warns of the consequences of delaying action on reducing emissions, which include:

  • Higher rates of global emission reductions in the medium-term;
  • Lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure;
  • Dependence on using all available mitigation technologies in the medium-term;
  • Greater costs of mitigation in the medium- and long-term, and greater risks of economic disruption;
  • Reliance on negative emissions; and
  • Greater risks of failing to meet the 2°C target, which would lead to substantially higher adaptation challenges and costs.


What level of carbon emissions would make 2 degrees possible?

Using the remaining carbon budget for limiting warming to 2 degrees, which currently sits at around 1000 gigatons of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2), UNEP has tried to work out when we need to reach carbon neutrality.

The phrase means that the net input of carbon from human activity is zero - so there could still be some carbon emissions, so long as they are compensated for by human actions, such as largescale re-forestation.

To put this 1,000 Gt CO2 in context, we had a total 'budget' for the 2 degrees scenario of 3,670 Gt CO2, and we've spent 1900 Gt CO2 (see graph, right).

We also emit other greenhouse gases, and when these are accounted for we've further reduced the total available budget to 2,900 Gt CO2 (of which we've already used 1,900 Gt CO2).

Using the numerical target of the carbon budget, the report suggests that if annual emissions come down in the immediate future, particularly in the years up to 2020, then the point of 'net zero' can come later.

In short, taking more action now reduces the need for taking more extreme action later to stay within the 2 degrees limit.

But there are problems even with this assumption: Some of the scenarios assume a high amount of negative emissions can be achieved - by extensive reforestation and forest growth, or carbon capture and storage, when neither of which could be said to be substantially underway.

The report shows that non-carbon total global greenhouse gas emissions also need to shrink to net zero some time between 2080 and 2100 to make 2 degrees possible.

Delaying action until 2020: the carbon lock-in

In addition to bringing the point at which emissions must plummet to zero closer, delaying action until after 2020 could also have other impacts - according to the study - including a greater reliance on negative emissions, greater risk of "economic disruption" and, crucially an even greater lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure.

Though the study presents a picture of substantial lock-in already.

Since 1990, emissions have increased by more than 45%, hovering at about the 54Gt CO2 equivalent in 2012. Without any action, this figure would be 87Gt CO2e per year, and rising, by 2050.

Few policies exist to change this.

Minding the emissions gap

Country pledges and commitments with 2020 as their target have only created a moderate reduction in emissions below business-as-usual levels.

In effect, emissions are still increasing apace, just not quite as quickly as they would be had promises for 2020 not been made.

This is what UNEP calls the emissions gap, which they have also revised in this report to be consistent with the 2 degrees target.

The gap by 2020 is now the difference between what we need to be at to keep warming at 2 degrees, and the emissions levels expected if country pledges are implemented.

We need to be at 44 Gt CO2e, but the range of expected global emissions (the median estimates) from pledges is 52-54Gt CO2e.

What can be done?

The report highlights a few things that could constitute the sort of 'action' required. They include

  • new policies and measures based on proven approaches, such as adjusting fuel prices through carbon taxes;
  • cutting fossil fuel subsidies which, the report says, amounts to more than $600 billion annually;
  • and policies to promote the rolling out of innovative technologies.


It puts an emphasis on efficiency as one of the quickest ways to develop while reducing emissions. There are many opportunities, it says, for improving the energy efficiency in heating, cooling and lighting in the buildings sector, for example.

Transport and electricity transmission are other areas where efficiency gains can be made.

 



Helle Abelvik-Lawson writes for the Greenpeace Energy Desk.

The report: The Emissions Gap Report 2014 assesses a vast amount of scientific literature on climate change mitigation, including scenarios from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The Executive Summary is available here; the full report is available here.

This article was originally published by the Greenpeace Energy Desk.

 

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