Science and Technology

UN climate report paints a bleak picture of a planet in peril

University of Miami experts examine the latest Emissions Gap Report, detailing some of the solutions that are needed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Silhouette of a power plant in Kiev, via iStock.
Global greenhouse gas emissions must fall by 7.6 percent annually starting next year to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord, the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report says.

The latest climate report card has been issued, and the world is failing.

Increasing global greenhouse gas emissions are on pace to cause a rise in global temperatures of as much as 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. To meet the most ambitious goals of the Paris climate accord, emissions must drop more than 7 percent annually starting in 2020.

Such is the grim picture painted by the United Nations’ 2019 Emissions Gap Report, which compares where greenhouse gas emissions are headed against where they should be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“This is a bleak report,” said Ben Kirtman, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, echoing the sentiments of the report’s authors.

“Emissions around the world have increased by about 1.5 percent over the past year, whereas to meet the Paris accord of substantially less than 2 degrees Celsius warming in the next 30-plus years, we need to reduce emissions by about 7.6 percent per year starting today and continuing for the next 10 to 15 years,” Kirtman said. “The report highlights that we are not on this path, and the climate impacts will continue to be serious and catastrophically disruptive to our environment.”

Indeed, if the world continues on its current pace, coral reefs would succumb to acidic oceans, storms would become more intense, and temperatures would be intolerable.

Coastal cities would be especially hit hard, facing major flooding from rising sea levels, said Joanna Lombard, a professor in the University of Miami’s School of Architecture who has worked with researchers at UM and other institutions to organize a colloquium on climate migration.

Noting that the degree of warming forecast by the UN Emissions Gap Report is associated with significant sea level rise, Lombard said every aspect of life would be challenged. “The most likely scenario is that new coastal cities will be inland and upland,” she explained. “As catastrophic as that might sound, rising sea levels represent just one aspect of what we would encounter; the water, soil and heat impacts would touch every kind of life everywhere. This is why it is so urgent to address emissions across all sectors, disciplines and scales of action.”

Issued ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, which started today and runs through Dec. 13, the report says that decreasing greenhouse gas emissions will not only help lessen the impacts of climate change but will also reduce air pollution, improve human health, and aid wildlife conservation.

But the world is not doing enough to reduce emissions, which have only risen, with a record 55.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere in 2018, according to the report.

“Because carbon dioxide leads to near permanent warming, it’s not a question of if the world transitions to energy and land systems with near zero emissions, it’s a question of when. And on this question of when, there is clear evidence that action now is important,” said Katharine Mach, an associate professor of marine ecosystems and society at the Rosenstiel School.

The report gives the world a stark choice: “Set in motion the radical transformations we need now, or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change.”

But what is hopeful is the degree to which solutions are available, said Mach, the lead author for Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, due out in 2022.

“Many of these solutions are tried-and-true economically viable creators of jobs—solar, wind, reduced deforestation, more efficient agriculture, to name a few options,” she said. “The real need is political will and just policy design, supporting a transition to clean energy and sustainable land use.”

Still, Mach noted, there are some greenhouse gas emissions for which there are currently no solutions. “Manufacture of cement and steel or long-distance travel by airplane fall into this category,” she explained. “The exciting challenge is the need for innovation. For these categories of action, the near-term priority is ensuring that research, development, and deployment at increasing the scale are happening, creating the next generation of solutions.”

Lombard said architecture and community planning can play a significant role in mitigating emissions. “The fundamental precept of walkable communities where cars are options and not necessities benefits human and planetary health,” she said. “Buildings play a major role as well. Given that buildings represent about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, the American Institute of Architects committed to the Architecture 2030 Challenge that all new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030.”

The report also presents selected policy developments of the individual G20 (Group of 20) nations, noting that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change is moving the U.S.’s emissions trajectory in the opposite direction, doing away with Obama-era efforts like the Clean Power Plan to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

“This leaves state and local governments who are interested in combating climate change to explore what they can do in the absence of federal law,” said Jessica Owley, a professor in UM’s School of Law who specializes in climate change law and policy.

She said many states are stepping up to the plate, emphasizing renewable energy, changing government purchasing and procurement plans, and working to promote programs that both mitigate the impacts of climate change and respond to the disasters and other problems climate change is causing.

“Local governments are taking action where they can with things like green building codes, improving transportation, and other efforts,” Owley said.

Owley weighs in on some of the other important issues that arise from the UN Emissions Gap report: 

What sort of resistance are states and local municipalities facing in their own efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change?

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not made things easy and has periodically pushed back on state and local efforts. This largely happens in the context of the Clean Air Act, which regulates air pollutants that harm human health. A series of lawsuits established that greenhouse gas pollutants should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Although it does directly harm us to breathe in carbon dioxide, the climate change impacts on human health are numerous. Once the Supreme Court established that the EPA must regulate greenhouse gas pollutants under the Clean Air Act, environmentalists faced a (likely) unintended consequence of that ruling. The Clean Air Act’s regulation of pollutants preempts state and local laws that also seek to regulate those pollutants. This law exists to promote uniformity, but it is playing an odd role in the greenhouse gas area. Put simply, the Clean Air Act serves as the basis for regulating greenhouse gas pollutants, and therefore state and local governments cannot act to regulate them directly. However, the federal government is essentially abdicating its role as a greenhouse gas regulator. It is not regulating them but also not letting others do so. Luckily, there are many other ways state and local governments can work to fight climate change and its impacts and many of them are seeking ways to do so. 

What potential strategies can states, companies and corporations use to protect the environment? 

Without government leadership, many private organizations are getting more involved in efforts to combat climate change. We see companies, universities, nonprofits, banks, insurance agencies, and many others pushing for climate change action. Companies like Walmart are installing solar panels. Hard Rock Stadium is getting rid of single-use plastic. We see widespread changes happening at all levels.