UN: Emission Promises Won't Stop Dangerous Climate Change

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Even if all the promises are kept — and that’s  unlikely— global warming will pass the danger threshhold in this century

by Ian Angus

A report issued today by the United Nations Environment Program says the world is heading for dangerous climate change and the emissions reductions promised by 85 countries are far too weak to stop catastrophe.

And that’s assuming that global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius is acceptable. Many scientists believe that 2º is too much, that a lower peak is essential. If they are right, then the situation is much worse than the UN study concludes.

Since December 2009, 140 nations have been persuaded to support Obama’s “Copenhagen Accord” — it’s reported that many blackmailed by U.S. threats to withhold aid for non-compliance. Of those, 85 have announced emissions targets for 2020. Some promised actual reductions; others efficiency improvements or what the American government likes to call “aspirational goals” — meaning vague hopes.

The U.N. study, tellingly titled The Emissions Gap Report, examines difference between what’s been pledged and what’s really needed.  It finds:

  • To keep the global temperature increase below 2º, emissions have to be cut to 44 gigatonnes a year by 2020.
  • If business continues as usual — i.e., no one does anything — global greenhouse gas emissions will reach 56 gigatonnes a year by 2020, compared to 48 gigatonnes in 2009.
  • If all the pledges, promises and good intentions associated with the Copenhagen Accord are fully implemented, annual emissions in 2020 will be about 49 gigatonnes. That’s at least 5 gigatonnes too much — an amount equal to the total emissions of all the  cars, buses and trucks in the world in 2005.
  • But as we all know, the chances that all countries will actually keep their promises are very slim. The report finds that if  countries follow their lowest ambitions and accounting rules set by negotiators are lax rather than strict, emissions could be as high as 53 gigatonnes in 2020, only slightly lower than the business as usual projections.

What the report doesn’t mention is that the world’s richest nations proved in Copenhagen that they have no intention of voluntarily doing what’s needed. Only the global climate justice movement, organized around the Peoples’ Agreement adopted in Cochabamba in May, can force them to change course.

As Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said in Copenhagen, “In Cancun we cannot permit the imperial dictatorship to impose itself. We must go to Cancun to continue the battle of Copenhagen with greater fury… we are not going to allow the imposition of a document that does not include the voices of the people.”


  • Thanks for this report. Has anyone done a side-by-side comparison between Copenhagen and Cochabamba to really illustrate where we need to go?
    I think it is really important that we get all ‘alternative’, ‘progressive’, etc type groups, publications to switch their focus to this most immediate and devastating problems. What use is there in fighting whale hunting if the oceans themselves cannot sustain life because of their acid level? We really need to ramp up and broaden this struggle.

  • Ian, thanks for the clarification. Btw, I like this site. It consolidates a lot of important news and information, and I think it’s right on in pointing to the radical political arena as the place where the issue of climate change will ultimately have to be addressed. Capitalism is destroying the biosphere and offers no workable solutions.

  • Interesting figures, Ian. I usually see greenhouse gas data like this expressed in parts per million, such as the atmospheric level of CO2 which the WMO has just confirmed to have been 386.8 ppm in 2009 and, of course, increasing ( http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/un_un_greenhouse_gases ). Having the figures shown in weight like this may make the issue of ghg emissions seem more “real” to some people. Meanwhile, that other dangerous feedback of warming, thawing permafrost and methane emissions, got some scary press last weekend in the mainstream news outlets, such as here in Yahoo:

    • Thanks Michael. Clearly “parts per million” is the appropriate way to describe greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, but here I was talking about the amount of actual emissions — that, is, how much is generated each year. That will result in an increase in parts per million, but it is an amount, not a ratio. The UNEP report uses gigatonnes, and I followed their example.