U.N. report warns need to change habits is much bigger than countries have pledged

U.N. report warns need to change habits is much bigger than countries have pledged

  • Students gather at John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C., during an environmental demonstration on Sept. 20, 2019.

    Students gather at John Marshall Park in Washington, D.C., during an environmental demonstration on Sept. 20, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken

 
 
Updated 12/13/2020 11:00 PM

The world's wealthy will need to reduce their carbon footprints by a factor of 30 to help put the planet on a path to curb the ever-worsening impacts of climate change, according to new findings published Wednesday by the United Nations Environment Program.

Currently, the emissions attributable to the richest 1% of the global population account for more than double those of the poorest 50%. Shifting that balance, researchers found, will require swift and substantial lifestyle changes, including decreases in air travel, a rapid embrace of renewable energy and electric vehicles, and better public planning to encourage walking, bicycle riding and public transit.

 

But individual choices are hardly the only key to mitigating the intensifying consequences of climate change.

Wednesday's annual "emissions gap" report, which assesses the difference between the world's current path and measures needed to manage climate change, details how the world remains woefully off target in its quest to slow Earth's warming. The drop in greenhouse gas emissions during this year's pandemic, while notable, will have almost no impact on slowing the warming that lies ahead unless humankind drastically alters its policies and behavior, the report finds.

Instead, nations would need to "roughly triple" their current emissions-cutting pledges to limit the Earth's warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average -- a central aim of the Paris climate agreement.

To reach the loftier goal of holding warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report found, countries would need to increase their targets at least fivefold. That goal in particular would require rapid and profound changes in how societies travel, produce electricity and eat.

"We'd better make these shifts, because while COVID has been bad, there is hope at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine," Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in an interview. "But there is no vaccine for the planet."

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Global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to fall by about 7% during 2020 -- a significant change driven by the spread of the coronavirus and the shutdowns that accompanied it, which had a particularly strong impact on travel. But that temporary dip probably will have only a "negligible long-term impact" on climate change in the years ahead, the U.N. report found.

If the drop in emissions caused by the pandemic proves an isolated event rather than the beginning of a major trend, the episode will prevent only .01 degree Celsius (.018 degree Fahrenheit) of warming by the year 2050, the report found.

Last year's "emissions gap" report found that humans would need to collectively cut emissions by close to pandemic amounts (7.6%) every year to begin to meet the Paris agreement's most ambitious climate goals. That is nowhere near to becoming a reality.

"Are we on track to bridging the gap? Absolutely not," the new report bluntly states.

Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen about 1.4% annually on average over the past decade. Last year saw the highest global emissions ever recorded, at 59 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, a category that includes not only the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but also methane and other climate-warming agents.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Based on countries' current promises, U.N. researchers found, the world remains on a trajectory to experience a temperature rise this century of about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) -- an amount that many experts say would have catastrophic effects on much of the planet.

Bending that disturbing curve in a more sustainable direction will require fundamental, unprecedented changes on the part of leaders around the globe. But as Wednesday's report makes clear, individual behavior also has a role to play. And the wealthy -- whom the report defines as those with the highest 1% of incomes globally, or more than $109,000 per year -- bear the greatest responsibility for helping fuel such a shift. (The "1%" in the United States, a wealthy country, are considerably richer than average, with annual household incomes above $500,000.)

Wealthy people are more likely to travel frequently by car and plane and to own large, energy-intensive homes. They tend to have meat-rich diets that require large amounts of greenhouse gases to produce. They buy the bulk of carbon-costly appliances, clothing, furniture and other luxury items.

Residents of the United States -- the world's largest historical source of planet-warming emissions -- have some of the most carbon-intensive lifestyles. The carbon footprint of the average American is about 17.6 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents a year, about twice the footprint of a person living in the European Union or the United Kingdom, and almost 10 times that of the average Indian citizen's 1.7 tons annually.

If the world is to achieve the kind of sweeping societal transformation needed, limiting consumption "will be really important," said Surabi Menon, vice president of global intelligence at the ClimateWorks foundation and a member of the report's steering committee.

And yet, although it is hard to argue with the numbers overall on the emissions consequences of more affluent lifestyles, this approach to rapidly changing people's ways would likely prove contentious.

"Shaming people and nations and demanding they change never has or will work," said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell, a law firm that works with a variety of energy companies in multiple sectors. "What is necessary is creating modestly increasing political, technology and cultural successes that build upon each other to create meaningful overall change."

Still, this year's pandemic might offer clues about how humans could achieve those cuts, Menon added. People are flying less, teleworking more and making fewer luxury purchases. "The question is, how do you keep these new behaviors we learned this year, but in a more sustainable way?" she said.

The latest sobering snapshot of the world's uphill battle to halt warming comes amid constant reminders of the urgency of the problem, as well as ongoing uncertainty about whether world leaders can summon the political will to take the actions scientists say are necessary.

Already, 2020 is on pace to be one of the warmest years on record, marked not only by a crippling pandemic but also devastating wildfires, scorching droughts and a startling number of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin. A separate report Tuesday, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the Arctic as a whole is warming at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the world.

"To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken," U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in an address last week at Columbia University, in which he pleaded that world leaders act with more urgency. He pointed to the collapse of biodiversity, the bleaching of coral reefs, and "apocalyptic" fires and floods. He noted that global emissions are 62% higher now than when international climate negotiations began three decades ago.

"Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal," Guterres warned. "Nature always strikes back, and it is already doing so with growing force and fury."

Wednesday's report does not paint an entirely bleak view of the future.

Governments around the world have spent $12 trillion boosting their economies in the wake of the pandemic -- an unprecedented injection of public funds. The authors found that if leaders around the world seize the opportunity to invest heavily in renewable energy and other green infrastructure as part of a post-COVID stimulus, the world could trim as much as 25% from its predicted 2030 emissions.

"We are in the middle of the pandemic, and recovery packages can still be shaped to solve the economic and the climate crises at the same time," Niklas Höhne, a German climatologist and founding partner of NewClimate Institute, and a contributing author to Wednesday's report, said in an email. "This is the one chance we have. Governments will not spend this much money again in 10 years."

Still, the report found little evidence that most countries, at least so far, have prioritized climate-friendly stimulus; instead, they have mainly funded existing industries, many of them carbon-intensive. "Large shares of resources still support fossil fuels with waivers of environmental regulations and bailouts of fossil fuel ... companies without environmental conditions," Höhne said.

A growing number of countries have committed to eliminate their net emissions entirely by midcentury. The report notes that at least 126 nations, representing 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have either announced or are considering such a goal. That number is likely to grow in the coming months, with a similar pledge widely expected from the United States under the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

Although such promises offer hope of a dramatic shift in the next decades, most nations have yet to back them up with concrete action.

"What's very exciting is that countries have now come out with these declarations on net zero," said Andersen, the UNEP chief. "Now, they need to sit down and do the hard work of telling us how they are going to get there."

In his speech last week, Guterres pleaded for a more equitable, thoughtful world to emerge from the pandemic. "We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth," he said.

And yet, studies have shown that the economic impacts of the coronavirus have most battered developing countries, the working poor, women and racial minorities. In the United States, billionaires have seen their wealth grow this year while millions of Americans head into the holidays unemployed, behind on rent and dependent on food banks for their next meal.

Research suggests that greater inequality within countries makes them less able to tackle climate change. The more wealth is concentrated at the top, the more powerful people tend to insulate themselves from the effects of warming and resist meaningful climate action. To make the extraordinary changes necessary in the years to come, the United States and other nations will need to overcome the habits of the past.

"We worry about the recovery being K-shaped: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and inequality keeps widening," Menon said. "I'm very mindful that those kinds of inequalities can really hamper any kind of climate progress that is made."

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