Mind the (emissions) gap

By Ginta Vanaga, Nov 07, 2013, 13:06 3 minute reading

The least costly scenario to keep global temperature rise below the critical 2°C threshold is under threat if wide-raging actions are not taken immediately to limit greenhouse gas emissions, argues the UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2013. With its publication timed to coincide with preparations by world leaders ahead next week’s seminal Climate Change Conference, the report makes reference to the significant emissions savings that could be achieved by tackling fluorinated gases.

If wide-ranging actions are not immediately taken by the global community to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) gap by 2020, “the chance of remaining on the least-cost path to keeping global temperature rise below 2°C this century will swiftly diminish and open the door to a host of challenges,” concludes the Emissions Gap Report 2013 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Even if countries around the world were to meet their current promises to reduce their emissions, the GHG emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (Gt CO2eq) above the level necessary to follow the least-costly scenario. Last year’s report gave an estimation of this gap being at 8 to 13 Gt CO2eq above the necessary level, indicating that not much progress has been made in the last twelve months to limit the global GHG emissions.

In order to maintain the average global temperature increase below 2°C, compared to the pre-industrial levels, GHG emissions by 2020 should be at a maximum level of 44 Gt CO2eq. Further cuts would need to be made to ensure that global GHG emissions by 2050 do not exceed 22 Gt CO2eq. However, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to reach these limits, argues the UNEP Report.

Costs of not closing the gap

Although there are still options available that could achieve the 2°C target with relatively higher emissions, not narrowing this emissions gap will increase mitigation challenges after 2020. “This will mean much higher rates of global emission reductions in the medium term; greater lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure; greater dependence on often unproven technologies in the medium term; greater costs of mitigation in the medium and long term; and greater risks of failing to meet the 2° C target”, argues the Emissions Gap Report 2013.

How to close the emissions gap

After analysing several studies available, the Emissions Gap Report 2013 concludes that there are promising mitigation measures as well as areas of cooperation that could help to significantly reduce the emissions gap by 2020. The four priority mitigation areas are:
  • energy efficiency with significant potential, up to 2 Gt CO2eq by 2020;
  • fossil fuel subsidy reform with varying estimates of the reduction potential: 0.4–2 Gt CO2eq by 2020;
  • methane and other short-lived climate pollutants as a mix of several sources;
  • renewable energy with particularly large potential: 1–3 Gt CO2eq by 2020.
Reducing emissions from fluorinated greenhouse gases and international transport are also frequently listed as priority areas that could narrow the gap between the necessary emission reductions to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C and the reality. From fluorinated gases alone emission savings of 0.3-0.5 Gt CO2eq per year 2020 could be reached.

Global initiatives do matter

A large number of international initiatives, diverse in scope and approach, are aimed at narrowing the emissions gap. While some can make indirect contributions by promoting dialogue, sharing experience and promoting best practice, others have the potential to make direct contributions.

According to the Emissions Gap Report, global initiatives focused on specific cooperation areas could be effective, since they focus efforts on a limited number of ambitious goals. The Consumer Goods Forum, a global industry network that agreed to begin phasing out hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants by 2015, has been mentioned as one of such example that could make significant direct contributions in narrowing the emissions gap by 2020.


The Copenhagen Accord agreed in 2009 and the Cancun Agreements signed in 2010 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), both acknowledge that the global average temperature rise must be kept below 2°C compared to its pre-industrial levels to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The Copenhagen Accord for the first time called on parties to the UNFCCC to submit voluntary emission reduction pledges for the year 2020 and, to date, 32 countries have agreed to do so.

Since 2010, UNEP, together with scientists from all over the world, has been measuring the gap between the ambition of the voluntary pledge and the reality of what is being achieved to reduce GHG emissions by 2020, and keep global temperature rise below 2°C.

The Emissions Gap Report 2013, launched on 5 November 2013 by the UNEP, involved 44 scientific groups in 17 countries.


By Ginta Vanaga

Nov 07, 2013, 13:06

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