UNEP: Bridging the Gap

Many delegates at last year’s COP in Cancun failed to take note of a rather large elephant lurking in the meeting rooms and corridors. And now that elephant has made its way to this COP – and has grown even larger.

Just last week, the UN Environment Programme issued an updated version of its landmark Emissions Gap report. Once again, UNEP concludes that by 2020 global emissions need to be reduced to 44 gigatonnes if the world is to be on a credible pathway to keeping warming below 1.5° C or even 2°.

First the bad news – UNEP finds that the gap between what is needed and what is on the table increased even more over the past year. Even if all countries go to the top end of their pledge ranges to cut emissions, and all loopholes are closed, the gap in 2020 will still be 6 gigatonnes – as much as the annual emissions of the US.

In the real world the gap is more likely to be around 11 gigatonnes. Developed countries are stuck on weaker, conditional pledges and their targets are riddled with loopholes. In fact, with the current weak pledges and lenient accounting rules, UNEP says that developed country emissions will be hardly any different than business as usual.

But there is also some good news in the report. UNEP says that with strong action now, it is possible to do even more than close the gap, without significant technical breakthroughs or prohibitive cost. How? By strongly focusing on energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy. By a major drive to halt deforestation. By improved waste management and agricultural practices. And by taking action on the currently unregulated sectors of international aviation and shipping.

To enable these real, practical solutions to prosper, the ambition of current pledges must be increased. All countries can and must do more. But first, developed countries need to raise their game dramatically. The Cancun Agreements recognised that developed country targets should be in the range of 25-40% below 1990 levels.  In ECO’s view, the ambition must rise above 40% if you are serious about 2° C – let alone the 1.5° C small islands need to keep afloat.

In a rational world, countries at Durban would listen to the trumpeting of the elephant and increase their pledges here and now. So ECO lives in hope.

Land use, land use change and forestry. UNEP says that weak LULUCF rules could contribute 0.6 gigatonnes to the emissions gap. These rules would allow developed countries to increase emissions from forestry activities while still claiming credits. Parties must discard these bad rules, and instead focus on accounting options with environmental integrity.

Surplus AAUs. The use of surplus allowances from the first commitment period could increase global emissions by as much as 2.9 gigatonnes in 2020, UNEP says. Strong rules to prevent or minimise the carryover of this surplus are essential.

Double counting of offsets against both developed country targets and developing country pledges could, along with fake offsets, increase the gap by 2 gigatonnes. Governments can and must rule this out once and for all.

Here in Durban, governments must also agree a robust process to formally recognise, quantify and close the gap. They must also agree to a peak year of 2015 in the Shared Vision. And they must agree a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, alongside a mandate for a comprehensive legally binding agreement to be concluded no later than 2015 and enter into force on 1 January 2018, a timeline that will not rule out the prospects for an early peak in emissions.

Delegates should pay heed to the wise words of African proverbs. “A man who is trampled to death by an elephant is a man who is blind and deaf”. Or, more positively: “When an elephant becomes as small as a monkey, it ceases to be an elephant.”

If you want to find out more about the Bridging the Emissions Gap report, UNEP is holding a side event in the African Pavilion at 18.30 on Thursday 1 December.

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