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Greenhouse Gas Emissions Gap Widening Says UNEP Study

By Marianne de Nazareth

27 November, 2012

It was around the same time last year that I wrote about the fact that the world is locking itself into an unsustainable energy future from a paper written by the International Energy Association (IEA). A whole year later, a new study by UNEP says that keeping average global temperature rise to below 2°C still possible, with cut backs from buildings, transportation and avoiding deforestation. So obviously we can still find hope, if we have not taken the warnings seriously last year at all.

The UNEP paper says action on climate change needs to be scaled-up and accelerated without delay if the world is going to hold a global average temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius this century. The Emissions Gap Report, was prepared by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Climate Foundation, for the convening of the Climate Change Conference of the parties in Doha. The important point being made was that the greenhouse gas emissions levels are now around 14 per cent above where they need to be in 2020. So, instead of declining, the concentration of warming gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) are actually increasing in the atmosphere,up around 20 per cent since 2000. If no swift action is taken by nations, emissions are likely to be at 58 gigatonnes (Gt) in eight years’ time, reveals the report which has inputs by a mind boggling 55 scientists from more than 20 countries.

The Emissions Gap Report of 2012 points out that even if the most ambitious level of pledges and commitments are implemented by all countries and conforming to rules,there will now be a gap of 8 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2020. This is 2 Gt higher than last year’s assessment with yet another year passing by.

Preliminary economic assessments, highlighted in the new report, estimate that inaction will trigger costs likely to be at least 10 to 15 per cent higher after 2020 if the needed emission reductions are delayed into the following decades. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “There are two realities encapsulated in this report,that bridging the gap remains do-able with existing technologies and policies; that there are many inspiring actions taking place at the national level on energy efficiency in buildings, investing in forests to avoid emissions linked with deforestation and new vehicle emissions standards alongside a remarkable growth in investment in new renewable energies worldwide, which in 2011 totaled close to US$260 billion”.

“Yet the sobering fact remains that a transition to a low carbon, inclusive Green Economy is happening far too slowly and the opportunity for meeting the 44 Gt target is narrowing annually,” he added. “While governments work to negotiate a new international climate agreement to come into effect in 2020, they urgently need to put their foot firmly on the action pedal by fulfilling financial, technology transfer and other commitments under the UN climate convention treaties. There are also a wide range of complementary voluntary measures that can that can bridge the gap between ambition and reality now rather than later,” said Mr. Steiner.

The report estimates that there are potentially large emissions reductions possible,in a mid-range of 17 Gt of CO2 equivalents,from sectors such as buildings, power generation and transport that can more than bridge the gap by 2020. Meanwhile, there are abundant examples of actions at the national level in areas ranging from improved building codes to fuel standards for vehicles which, if scaled up and replicated, can also assist.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said, "This report is a reminder that time is running out, but that the technical means and the policy tools to allow the world to stay below a maximum 2 degrees Celsius are still available to governments and societies”.

The most important segment of the report was looking at sectors where the necessary emissions reductions may be possible by 2020. The areas that were zeroed in on were - Improved energy efficiency in industry could deliver cuts of between 1.5 to 4.6 Gt of CO2 equivalent; followed by agriculture, 1.1 to 4.3 Gt; forestry 1.3 to 4.2 Gt; the power sector, 2.2 to 3.9 Gt; buildings 1.4 to 2.9 Gt; transportation including shipping and aviation 1.7 to 2.5 Gt and the waste sector around 0.8 Gt.

Certain sectors have an even bigger potential over the long term. By boosting the energy efficiency of buildings, for example, could deliver average reductions of around 2.1 Gt by 2020 but cuts of over 9Gt CO₂ equivalent by 2050.

“This implies that by 2050 the building sector could consume 30 per cent less electricity compared to 2005 despite a close to 130 per cent projected increase in built floor area over the same period,” it says.

The report concludes that if this is to happen, “state of the art building codes may need to become mandatory in the next 10 years in all of the major economies such as the United States, India, China and the European Union”. Further emission reductions are possible with the use of more energy efficient appliances and lighting systems.

Potential emissions reductions from the transportation sector are assessed at 2 Gt of CO₂ equivalent by 2020. The report notes that there is already a shift with the eight biggest multilateral development banks at the recent Rio+20 Summit pledging US$175 billion over the next decade for measures such as bus rapid transport systems. The report recommends the “Avoid, Shift and Improve’ polices and measures that encourage improved land planning and alternative mobility options such as buses, cycling and walking above the private car, alongside better use of rail freight and inland waterways.
Combinations of improved vehicle standards and scrappage schemes for old vehicles can also assist. The report says approved and proposed new standards in seven countries ranging from Australia and China to the European Union, the Republic of Korea and the United States are expected to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of new light-duty vehicles by over 50 per cent by 2025 from 2000 levels.

“Although it remained under-utilized, “avoided deforestation” is considered a low cost greenhouse gas emissions reductions option,” says the report. Policies to assist in reducing deforestation and, thus, greenhouse gas emissions, include establishing protected areas such as national parks to economic instruments such as taxes, subsidies and payments for ecosystem services.

The report cites Brazil where a combination of conservation policies allied to falls in agricultural commodity prices has led to a decrease in deforestation by three quarters since 2004 avoiding 2.8 Gt of CO₂ equivalent between 2006 and 2011. Protected areas in Costa Rica now represent over as fifth of its territory, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and triggering a rise in tourists from just under 390,000 in 1988 to 2.5 million in 2008: tourism now accounts for around 15 per cent of GDP.

Marianne de Nazareth is Independent media professional and adjunct faculty, St. Joseph’s PG College Bangalore)




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