A failure of ambition: the UNEP Emissions Gap Report:


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has published its Emissions Gap Report 2014 a couple of weeks before the UN Conference on Climate Change in Lima, Peru. The latter is the annual UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP), the penultimate one before the 2015 conference in Paris where, with a bit of luck, legally binding medium and long-term targets will be set for each country for emissions reduction. Each year since Copenhagen in 2009 the UNEP has reported on the gap between explicit pledges made by member states and what is required to have a likely (67%) chance of the planet staying within the 2°C guardrail. This is a necessary activity, because since Copenhagen each country determines its own targets within a framework of “common but differentiated responsibility”, which is a bunch of words that effectively allow each country to do as it pleases.

Someone needs to keep a tally as to what all this voluntary activity adds up to. UNEP had taken on that role.

The UNEP report takes note of and is broadly consistent with the IPCC Synthesis Report. Hence it accepts the IPCC ‘budget approach’ which states that we have already emitted 1,900 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2) from an allowable budget of 2900 Gt since the dawn of the industrial era, leaving an estimated remaining budget of just 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2). That’s roughly 20 years worth of emissions at the current rate.

Whereas the IPCC has given a range of scenarios, (scientists giving a range of options to policy makers) the UNEP has plotted just one which sees us peaking within about 10 years, halving CO2 emissions by 2050 and reaching net zero thereafter, they say between 2055 and 2070.

Net zero implies that some remaining CO2 emissions could be compensated by the same amount of carbon dioxide uptake, or ‘negative’ emissions, so long as the net input to the atmosphere due to human activity is zero, the report finds.

Because this scenario involves overshoot we will have to have net negative emissions during the last decades of the century. The less we act now the harder it gets later, as illustrated here:

Carbon neutrality_cropped_600

Hopefully this will sink into the brains of those attending the Lima conference, and more importantly the brains of their masters back home.

UNEP have done the sums and find that emissions in 2020 should not be higher than 44Gt CO2e to have a 67% chance of staying within
the 2°C target. If countries honour their current pledges we are heading for 52–54 Gt CO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 8–10 Gt CO2e.

UNEP then looked at whether countries were on track to honour their pledges.

After reviewing available evidence from the G20 (with the EU 28 taken as a group) it appears that five parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Brazil, China, the EU28, India and the Russian Federation – are on track to meet their pledges. Four parties – Australia, Canada, Mexico and the USA – are likely to require further action and/or purchased offsets to meet their pledges, according to government and independent estimates of projected national emissions in 2020. Conclusions are not drawn for Japan, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia and South Africa because of various uncertainties, nor for Argentina, Turkey and Saudi Arabia because they have not proposed pledges.

In 2010 we were at 49Gt CO2e; in 2020 we are likely to be at 55 Gt CO2e. The broad situation out to 2030 is represented as follows:

Emissions gap_cropped_600

I take it that our current form will get us to 56 to 59 Gt CO2e (grey), whereas we should at the very least be at 42 Gt CO2e (in the orange zone).

The gap is still widening.

There are several comments that need to be made.

First, the UNEP calculations would not have taken on board the China-US agreement. As stated in that post, Climate Interactive worked out that if other countries matched the US-China effort the following stabilisation scenario would ensue:


For the first time we have a prospect of peaking emissions, but this does not come within a bulls roar of zero emissions in the second half of this century. The current level of ambition is lamentably lacking.

Secondly, and admirably, the UNEP report takes into account all greenhouse gases from all sources, calculated in terms of CO2 equivalent. Too often scientific reporting is limited to fossil fuel emissions.

Thirdly, the report is conceived within a framework that is irresponsible, bordering insane. A 67% chance of not breaching the 2°C guardrail represents lousy odds when we are dealing with the viability of major ecosystems on the planet and the future of civilisation.

The 2°C guardrail itself is now clearly inappropriate, when, for example as I explained in this post and elsewhere that preserving more than 10% of coral reefs worldwide in 2100 would require limiting warming to below 1.5°C.

The World Bank report Turn down the heat contains examples like this:

In Brazil, at 2°C warming, crop yields could decrease by up to 70 percent for soybean and up to 50 percent for wheat.

The scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics who put that report together for the World Bank are telling it like it is. Sadly the international array of scientists and others involved in the UNEP report (plenty of Germans but none I can see from Potsdam) are making concessions to what they think will be politically acceptable and doable, as, unfortunately, does the IPCC report.

The stakes are too high for such dissembling diplomacy!

Update: Len @ 1 asked:

It would be nice to at least know what level of action is needed to reach a 95% level surety. Is this stated anywhere?

Back in 2008 James Hansen told us that we had already overshot and that in the first instance we should get concentration levels down to 350 CO2e. Hower, he seems to be about a decade ahead of the bulk of the scientific/political community concerned with climate change. The 2°C guardrail had been invented by the Germans in the 1990s and was accepted by the UNFCCC process as a desirable aim in Copenhagen in 2009. Since then it has become the ‘widely accepted standard’ we should aim at. As such it provides the framework within most climate mitigation scientists work.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment report (AR5) (my post on the Synthesis Report here – see second table) did not look at stabilisation scenarios aiming at less than 450 ppm CO2e. They have a column for <430 but didn't fill it in, because of a lack of studies in the scientific record. The IPCC relies on studies in the scientific literature, with a cutoff of about December 2012, and insufficient studies were available for them to fill in the numbers. So the failure is with the scientific community, sadly. I can give you two pointers. The first is this wondrous graph which I first picked up in The Climate Authority Review of targets:

Stabilisation probabilities_croppedb_580

The graph has Malte Meinshausen’s name on it. He was at the time at the Potsdam Institute, I believe he is now at the University of Melbourne. His work is excellent.

From the graph you can see that 350 ppm will only get you about a 95% chance of staying below 2.5°C, not 2°C.

If you want a 1.5°C climate you need about 320 ppm. We are currently at 480 ppm CO2e.

It is notable that David Spratt and Philip Sutton wrote in 2008 that we should be aiming at 320 ppm. Spratt blogs at Climate Code Red, where under Publications you will find a book by the same name which was originally published online in 2008 as The Big Melt written in response to the astonishing Arctic melting in 2007, since easily surpassed in 2012. Spratt is a science writer rather than a scientist, and consistently publishes critiques of the mainstream approach, as I picked up, for example in The game is up, where he says:

We have to come to terms with two key facts: practically speaking, there is no longer a “carbon budget” for burning fossil fuels while still achieving a two-degree Celsius (2°C) future; and the 2°C cap is now known to be dangerously too high.

He concludes that there is no longer a non-radical option, only one path remains viable: the emergency ‘war economy’ mode.

Climate Code Red identifies practical strategies we need to adopt.

The Australian group Beyond Zero Emissions consistently publish material on rapid decarbonistaion. My mate John Davidson has investigated them more than I have and regards them as sound. I hope to post on one of their reports soon.

Elsewhere Kevin Anderson from the UK is worth keeping an eye on. See his personal site and Real clothes for the emperor.

Professor John Wiseman, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne looked at the shape of climate policy for the future for the Centre for Policy Development. See Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality. He has an appropriate sense of urgency and sets out the specific strategies we need to adopt in Australia for rapid decarbonisation. He, for example, sees the need for 100% renewables in 10 years.

People like Spratt, Anderson, Wiseman and BZE are all looking for “the achievement of emission reductions at the necessary scale and speed [which] will require transformational rather than incremental change”. The war analogy is not inappropriate. Abbott would have us fiddle while Rome burns. His approach is essentially one of tokenism. You run a climate mitigation program off to one side in order to have one on your books, at the least expense you can get away with. It’s essentially a sop to the electorate which doesn’t interrupt your central vision of the generation of wealth based centrally on the fossil fuel industry.

This is delusional – see The folly of Galilee basin coal.

24 thoughts on “A failure of ambition: the UNEP Emissions Gap Report:”

  1. I agree …. accepting a one-in-three chance of breaching the 2 degree guardrail seems reckless in the extreme, especially when even 2 deg will produce significant social and environmental disruption (eg, most of the Great Barrier Reef gone does booth).

    Whatever happened to the usual statistical practice of adopting a 95% level of confidence when evaluating such matters, or accepting a 1-in-20 chance of being wrong when making a decision.

    It would be nice to at least know what level of action is needed to reach a 95% level surety. Is this stated anywhere?

  2. Then there is the wishful thinking that the Arctic Permafrost will not thaw and throw all of the carefully prepared calculations into the wildly optimistic category. There is absolutely no point in getting comfortable with these figures as they are purely aspirational and little more than locker room team talk. The real game will be a very different reality.

  3. BilB, indeed.

    Len it’s refreshing to receive such a common sense comment. I continually fear being called an alarmist, but by people who don’t deal with the facts.

    The response to your question is post-length and contains an image which we can’t do in comments, so I’ve done it as a update to the post above.

  4. I continually fear being called an alarmist, but by people who don’t deal with the facts.

    Predictions aren’t facts, never have been, never will be. 🙂

    ( hope you see the funny side of that Brian )

  5. jumpy, James Hansen saw three kinds of evidence – direct observations, the paleo climate record and models. He saw them in that order of importance. He makes better use of paleo evidence than most.

    Most modelers seem to neglect the paleo evidence and the models are based on geologically short time periods of direct evidence gathering, limiting their predictive power. They also tend to smooth things out, whereas climate progresses in fits and starts which are quite lumpy.

  6. Ok, it was a little joke about predictions were I made the prediction ” never will be”,
    but since seriousness dominates, Ill state and believe this;-
    ” Predictions by humans, assisted by computer models or not, are neither facts nor evidence ”
    I am open to be educated otherwise.

  7. Let your education begin, Jumpy. The term models refers to computer simulations of a broad range of physical elements at many levels and degrees of complexity. nearly everything that you use these days that has been created in the last decade has been modeled in a variety of ways in order to make “it” a reality. Computer penetration into the realisation of most things physical begins even at the conceptual stage, carries through to the full form visualising, passes onto the stress analysis modelling, moves further to the production flow analysis, then the tooling path production modelling, and then finally may encounter some market analysis modelling.

    It is modelling every step of the way, all based on physics and mathematics programmed to model the imaginings of creative people so that you can have your farm machinery, your mining machinery, your personal transport, your comfortable and safe commercial aircraft for international travel, you smart phone, your children’s toys, your medical procedure, your medications, your housing, your air conditioning, on and on…pretty well everything that makes your life modern and comfortable except the shirt on your back , is extensively modelled in a variety of ways.

    You accept and take for granted the reality of all of these parts of your life, they are tangible and real to you, and modelled without your knowledge or appreciation. So it is to some degree understandable that the modelling of our environment comes as a smack in the face to someone who does not know how the modern over consumerised world works. The notion that modelling climate seems to be audacious to you, and therefore it cannot work.

    The fact is that climate modelling is just an extension of all of the other modelling that creates the tangible hardware that makes you “modern”, and is every bit as practical and real as the myriad of other modelling software. The physics is different, the results are approximations though becoming ever more accurate, the predictions are tested in near term outcomes for verification and the further future predictions are very plausible evidence of how our climate will change, and every bit as accurate and real as your prediction that you will wake up tomorrow morning.

  8. Bilb: I think you are being a bit simplistic here. The models you are talking about are very simple compared with modelling the climate. In addition, climate science is developing as we speak and could easily be missing critical knowledge.
    Jumpy: the scary thing is that the modellers will br trying to use conservative assumptions so they are not exposed to attack from their opponents. The results Brian quotes are more likely to be lower than the scary future our grandchildren face.

  9. On the contrary, John D. The mathematics of engineering modelling software would be more involved than that of climate modelling software. There are billions of dollars spent each year maintaining and advancing these tools. The difference between the 2 is the scale of the computation. Climate modelling involves a massive number of iterations of simpler computations. The billions of dollars spent in climate science are spent determining what those calculations should be, testing their validity, creating and maintaining the super computers required to run such models, and then on deciphering the results.

    The point I am making is that, regardless of the differences in various fields of physics or engineering, computer modelling is a reliable predictor of our physical space, and with every model run it becomes more accurate and reliable. And I don’t believe that modelers “tone down” their calculations to make them palatable to the ignorant. This is science not public relations. The IPCC on the other hand is forced to tone down the interpretation of the science in order to gain consensus. Their problem is to catch even the lowest hanging significant participants, to which end the Monckton denialist block have succeeded in making Australia a reach too far, and the Abbott rotten fruit will fall from the tree taking us all with him.

    I am always bemused by the willingness of denialists to grasp at the results of modelling in evaluating the vastness of past geological time but the same methodologies applied to the very near future must all be false and unreliable. This highlights the true disingenuous nature of their position.

    Jumpy’s comment was an attempted one way hash, and such banale efforts should always be rebuked.

  10. Bilb: My experience with engineering modelling is that it is usually dealing with known relationships and relative simple, stable systems. Engineering modelling gets a lot less reliable when you are trying to model less stable systems where small changes may give large outcomes and/or trigger runaway reactions etc.
    My take on the sort of modelling required to predict the effects of changing green house gases involves both unstable systems and relationships that are not fully understood.
    When presenting a case it is often desirable to be able to say “At least……” rather than use a best case prediction where there is a significant possibility that this result will be optimistic.

  11. Jumpy’s comment was an attempted one way hash

    I have no idea what this means.
    But you have expanded my statement to

    ” Predictions by humans, assisted by computer models or not, are neither facts,proof nor evidence ”

    Can we run previous predictions through computer model to ascertain the likelihood of a correct prediction made in, say, 50 years ?
    There have been a multitude of doosies that have been so wrong it’s ridiculous.
    Paleopredictions are batting well below 50%.

  12. I feel sad for you, Jumpy, as your life is clearly full of bitter disappointment. The anticipation and excitement of exploration and adventure is lost to your certainty of failure. I’m feel that this moroseness that you live with was bourne out of the cane toad disaster. No modelling, no science, just plain old putting 2 and 2 together and the certainty that toads would eat bugs, the bugs. Instead we got bugs an toads. How could you rely on anything ever again. Nothing anyone does will work. If people can’t predict what will happen next, how ever can an automated calculator determine how a future will unfold.

    If only you could wash away those disappoinments of the past, open you mind, and you would understand. We can see into the future. Your open mind will be thrilled to know that the theory of the old Jumpy can be defeated with a simple demonstration. How? How can this possibly be true??? Patience. Take any simple computer and set the countdown timer to 10 seconds. Now in your mind say “ten seconds from when I press the start button ten seconds will have elapsed when the alarm rings”. Then press the count down start button and wait. Count slowly to ten. When you hear the alarm you will then know that you have predicted a future event, and with the aid of a computer proven your prediction to be factual and true.

  13. jumpy @ 12

    Paleopredictions are batting well below 50%.

    That’s an authoritative statement for a non-specialist!

    I did read an article once on James Hansen’s predictions vs reality once and he has a good record.

    I don’t have enough mathematics to properly understand models. I think there are 20 or 30 general climate models and you often hear a comment like ‘8 out of 10 models predict an El Nino’. So there is uncertainty, but there is risk.

    I understand questions are asked of models about the relationship between factors, effectively asking the model what might be going on in reality. This then may be able to be verified by measurement, or not depending on feasibility and expense.

    Models, it seems to me are a tool to be used to gain understanding, but there is nuance and shades and degrees of confidence.

  14. Ok, then please let me ask ( in the ” backyard bbq get together sort of way I assume Brain wishes this site to be ) if all fossil fuel sources were left in the ground from this day forward, predict the state of humanity. environment and the animal populace in general in two years time ?

  15. That is a very interesting proposition, jumpy, which science would be able to estimate quite accurately mainly due to the absolute nature of a shut off of CO2 supply coupled with the known rate at which the Earth’s biosphere scrubs CO2 from the atmosphere. I suspect that there would quite a few scientists who would enthusiastically do the estimate and projection.

  16. BilB
    I was thinking more of the immediate impact on society of immediately mandating fossil fuel extraction cease.
    If we’re concerned about our great grandchildren’s quality of life on this planet, then our children need to survive for them to exist.
    Just one aspect is liquid fuels, of which Australia has about 20 day worth in reserve.
    I don’t know the size of coal stockpiles but 1 to 2 months worth seems plausible.

    If a global announcement was made ( and I’m sure Milne would love to do it ) that from this day forward NO fossil fuel will be extracted, full stop, please paint a picture of life in Australia and the rest of the world.

    Personally I see calamity on the scale the human race has never before experienced.

  17. It should be totally obviuos that economy or society would not survive an immediate cessation of fossil fuel use. There needs to be a fully functioning alternative to replace coal and oil.

    This is the Crime of Abbott. He has been an obstruction of the process of building towards what is required for at least ten years. His reasoning is bizare, and will ensure that he drops from public memory extremely rapidly once he disposed of.

    The fact is that it will take most of a hundred years to decarbonise our nation. The shear task of infrastructure replacement is immense. The most significant change will be in the residential rooftop energy production, and this is simply because the investment is shared over the entire community, and is justified by the energy offset cost which for end users is at the retail price. ie they have the most to gain.

    The grid energy system will steadily decline over the next sixty years to be predominately an energy transfer system only linking the distributed alternative segments together and to service the handful of major energy consuming businesses that survive.

    Jimmy Carter famously “declared war on the energy problem” kicking off the dramatic development of wind energy systems. Barak Obama has kicked off what will be our future energy storage systems.


    Along the way participating economies will be bouyed by the process of building alternative energy structure and hardware. Left up to idiots lie Abbott, Australia will be an importer of every part of our alternative energy future and our econmy will struggle with a perpetual balance of paments problem.

    Australia once prided itself on its alternative energy status with every country well fitted with a wind driven pump. This was a feature of our landscape. Solar panels are slowly appearing to do some of that work. The Lib ideologues would like to prevent that.

    The question is why?

  18. Jumpy: “What would happen if we stopped extracting fossil carbon now”. is the wrong question since we know the result would be a disaster.

    the more interesting question is what would happen if we had say 10 years warning. The answer would be that we would do OK if we treated the issue with the level of commitment that went into winning WWll.

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