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UN warns of 2.9°C global warming risk if nations don’t step up efforts

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The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has published its latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR), finding that countries are most likely to breach the limits set by the Paris Agreement.

  • Current national pledges put the world on track for a 2.5-2.9°C temperature rise in this century.
  • Governments must ramp up efforts before 2030 to prevent the gap from widening.
  • All nations were called to deliver economy-wide, low-carbon development transformations, aiming for an equitable energy transition. 

UNEP has published its annual EGR, Emissions Gap Report 2023: Broken Record – Temperatures hit new highs, yet world fails to cut emissions (again), tracking the gap between the direction of global warming with current country commitments and what is needed to stay within the limits imposed by the Paris Agreement.

In addition, the 2023 edition focuses on energy transitions in low- and middle-income countries and looks at the role of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in bridging this gap. The EGR comes a week before COP28 to serve as a key input to the Global Stocktake, which will inform the next round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to be submitted in 2025.

According to UNEP, preparing the next round of NDCs offers the opportunity for low- and middle-income countries to develop national roadmaps with ambitious development and climate policies, and targets for which finance and technology needs are specified. COP28 should ensure that international support is provided for the development of such roadmaps, it noted.

“There is no person or economy left on the planet untouched by climate change, so we need to stop setting unwanted records on greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature highs and extreme weather,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “We must instead lift the needle out of the same old groove of insufficient ambition and not enough action, and start setting other records: on cutting emissions, on green and just transitions and on climate finance.”

Where are emissions heading?

Current national pledges put the world on track for a 2.5-2.9°C temperature rise in this century. Between January and the beginning of October in 2023, 86 days were recorded with temperatures over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and September was the hottest recorded month ever, with global average temperatures 1.8°C.

Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased by 1.2% from 2021 to 2022 to reach a new record of 57.4 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). To align with the Paris Agreement, they must be cut by 28% for a 2°C pathway and 42% for a 1.5°C pathway before 2030.

What needs to be done?

According to UNEP, if we are to stick to the limits set by the Paris Agreement, the world must significantly strengthen mitigation by 2030 to narrow the emissions gap. This will facilitate more ambitious targets for 2035 in the next round of NDCs and increase the chances of meeting net zero pledges, which now cover around 80% of global emissions. The current decade is crucial: unless emission levels in 2030 are brought down further, it will become impossible to establish least-cost pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with no or low overshoot during this century.

There are now 149 NDCs, which are countries’ plans to achieve the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Some of them are conditional, meaning the countries will need external financial support to achieve them, and unconditional, meaning they can fund them by themselves.

If mitigation efforts implied by current policies are continued at today’s levels, global warming will only be limited to 3°C. Fully implementing efforts implied by unconditional NDCs would put the world on track for a maximum rise of 2.9°C, while conditional NDCs fully implemented would lead to 2.5°C – all of these scenarios have a 66% chance.

If all conditional NDCs and long-term net-zero pledges were met, limiting the temperature rise to 2°C would be possible. Net zero pledges, however, are not considered credible: none of the G20 countries is reducing emissions at a pace consistent with their net zero targets. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the likelihood of limiting warming to 1.5°C is only 14%, according to UNEP.

A just transition to a low-carbon world

UNEP called for all nations to deliver economy-wide, low-carbon development transformations, with a focus on the energy transition. The coal, oil and gas extracted over the lifetime of producing and planned mines and fields would emit over 3.5 times the carbon budget available to limit warming to 1.5°C, and almost the entire budget available for 2°C. 

“We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. And it demands a just, equitable renewables transition,” said Antònio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations.  

Countries with greater capacity and responsibility for emissions – particularly high-income and high-emitting countries among the G20 – will need to take more ambitious and rapid action and provide financial and technical support to developing nations, the report said. As low- and middle-income countries already account for more than two-thirds of global GHG emissions, meeting development needs with low-emissions growth is a priority in such nations. This includes addressing energy demand patterns and prioritising clean energy supply chains. 

The transition poses economic and institutional challenges for low- and middle-income countries, but also provides major opportunities: it can help to provide universal access to energy, lift millions out of poverty and expand strategic industries. The associated energy growth can be met efficiently and equitably with low-carbon energy as renewables get cheaper, ensuring green jobs and cleaner air. 

To achieve this, international financial assistance will have to be significantly scaled up, UNEP stressed, with new public and private sources of capital restructured through financing mechanisms – including debt financing, long-term concessional finance, guarantees and catalytic finance – that lower the costs of capital.  

As for CO2 removal from the atmosphere, the report found that delaying GHG emissions reductions will increase future reliance on methods that are uncertain and associated with risks. Afforestation, reforestation and forest management come with land competition as well as issues around the protection of tenure and rights, while newer technologies have technical, economic and political requirements for large-scale deployment that may not materialise in time.  


The report makes for an unsettling read but it is crucial to ramp up the pressure on policymakers to ensure we are on a path that will keep our planet liveable. All eyes are on COP28 to deliver meaningful progress on this matter – there is no time for complacency or patting ourselves on the back, as recent analysis of listed companies’ decarbonisation efforts found. 

Even though emissions are being cut in some parts of the global economy, they are still rising in most areas as we are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. There are plenty of opportunities to facilitate the low-carbon transition and business leaders ought to consider those rather than focusing on short-term disruption.

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