Fossil fuel emissions have bounced back after the pandemic, leaving the world far off course to tackle climate change, the United Nations has warned.
A new report from UN agencies warns that global emissions are back up to around the same levels they were in 2019, after a dramatic drop in 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
The “emissions gap” between the amount of pollution cuts countries need to make in the next decade to curb rising temperatures to less dangerous levels and where the world is currently heading remains as large as ever.
This year has recorded devastating extreme weather and climate events, and human-induced climate change was identified as a driver in events such as the record North American heatwave and west European floods.
And there is a 40% chance the world will temporarily hit 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – a target limit agreed by countries under the Paris climate deal, beyond which increasingly damaging climate impacts are expected.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the multi-agency report, which is an all-round assessment of the latest science, is “an alarming appraisal of just how far off course we are”.
“We are still significantly off schedule to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
“This year has seen fossil fuel emissions bounce back, greenhouse gas concentrations continuing to rise, and severe human-enhanced weather events that have affected health, lives and livelihoods on every continent.
“Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5C will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend,” he said in the foreword to the United In Science report.
Among the findings are estimates that global emissions in the power and industry sectors were already at the same level or higher in January-July 2021 than in the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
While road transport emissions remain about 5% below 2019 levels in the first seven months of 2021, overall global emissions – excluding aviation and shipping – were at about the same levels as in 2019.
It shows that pollution has bounced back after a 5.6% drop in fossil emissions from coal, oil, gas and cement in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.
There is also a warning that recent emissions trends of nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, are exceeding the worst-case scenarios for climate pollution.
The report said the amount of the major greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continued to increase in 2020 and the first half of 2021, and, while the pandemic is likely to have reduced the annual increase in levels of the pollutants, the effect was too small to be distinguished from natural variation.
Reducing methane in the short term could help get the world on track to meet the Paris goals, but does not reduce the need for strong, rapid and sustained reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, it said.
The report also said an increasing number of countries committed to cut their emissions to “net zero” – or zero overall – which is needed to meet the 1.5C target, with 63% of global emission now covered by such targets.
But there needs to be immediate policies and significantly more ambitious national action plans for the next decade to 2030 to deliver on the net-zero goals, the UN warned.
The report was released ahead of crucial UN climate talks, known as Cop26, taking place in November in Glasgow, where world leaders will be under pressure to step up their action and ambition to tackle the climate crisis.
Responding to the report, Professor Simon Gosling, professor of climate risks at the University of Nottingham, said: “We’re already seeing extreme events that are attributable to human climate change across the world, like heatwaves, floods and forest fires.
“This report highlights why we have to turn a sharp corner to avoid the situation getting considerably worse.
“We are hurtling towards 1.5C at a worrying rate. It’s not something decades away but something we have a fair chance of seeing in a matter of years.”
He warned of “very hard times ahead” without action to address the emissions gap, as a more extreme climate combined with the challenges of the pandemic.