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The world is failing its emissions test

Greenhouse gas emissions need to halve by 2030. They’re on track to rise.

Smoke and flames rise from a mountain during a wildfire in Banan district on August 23, 2022 in Chongqing, China. 
Extreme heat and drought fueled wildfires this summer in China.
VCG via Getty Images

In 2018, United Nations climate scientists warned that if the world wants to keep global average temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — one of the targets of the Paris climate agreement — humanity would have to cut its emissions roughly in half by 2030.

A report from the UN on Wednesday found that the world is on track to increase emissions by 10.6 percent compared to 2010 levels, and that’s if countries actually meet their current commitments. That could lead global average temperatures to rise as high as 2.9 degrees Celsius, or 5.22 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s a grim prediction as world leaders prepare to gather at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt next month to hash out their plans to deal with climate change, and it’s a reminder that there’s a cavernous chasm between what countries say and what they do.

The effects of those actions, or lack thereof, are already apparent and will continue to get worse. UNICEF warned this week that 559 million children are already facing frequent heat waves. By 2050, just about every child on Earth will experience more extreme heat, even under more optimistic greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

“These disasters are not inevitable or ‘natural’ — they are of our making,” wrote climate activist Vanessa Nakate in the report.

The Lancet also published its assessment of health and climate change this week, noting that rising average temperatures is increasing the spread of certain diseases, impairing food security, exacerbating existing inequalities, and threatening the health system as a whole.

“Urgent action is therefore needed to strengthen health-system resilience and to prevent a rapidly escalating loss of lives and to prevent suffering in a changing climate,” according to the report.

Climate conferences like COP27 are the main vehicle for coordinating between countries to address these problems. But the process has been agonizingly slow, and despite the pressure for more aggressive cuts to emissions, other economic concerns may once again halt progress.

Countries are promising to do more than ever, but it’s still nowhere near enough

The 2015 Paris Agreement set up a process where countries would come up with their own plans to meet the targets of the agreement, limiting warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels, with a more ambitious target of staying below 1.5 Celsius.

It was clear from the outset that what countries promised to do wouldn’t be enough, but the idea was that as economies grew and technologies improved, countries would step up their commitments, outlined in plans known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). And so far, countries have been increasing their ambitions.

Chart showing projected greenhouse gas emissions scenarios
The current batch of commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions is an improvement, but not enough to meet climate change targets.
UN Climate Change

However, not everyone is moving at the same pace. A year ago, at the last major climate meeting in Glasgow, more than 130 countries, including China, the United States, and India, the world’s three largest carbon dioxide emitters, pledged to eventually zero out their contributions to climate change. But since then, only 24 of the 193 parties to the Paris Agreement increased their NDCs.

And NDCs are only pledges — countries then have to act on them, and so far, they haven’t moved the needle. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Though the Covid-19 pandemic led to a drop, emissions have more than rebounded this year.

Chart showing global greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels over time.
Global emissions have continued to rise in the years since the Paris Agreement.
Our World in Data

Yet as leaders gather in Sharm el-Sheikh, climate change may not be at the front of their minds. Inflation is rising around the world, and many governments are bracing for a recession. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a spike in fuel prices and grain prices. Some countries are now increasing their use of coal and other fossil fuels, reversing years of decline. Renewable energy is cheaper than ever, but the bulk of the world’s economy still runs on coal, oil, and natural gas.

But for other countries, climate change is impossible to ignore. Floods in Pakistan this summer killed more than 1,100 people, worsened by melting glaciers. Extreme heat, drought, and wildfires afflicted more than 900 million people in China. A gargantuan heat wave baked much of India. As a result, some delegates to the meeting are not just calling for greater urgency to address climate change, but for reparations, since the countries that contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions are often the ones that suffer the most under warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres explicitly called for such compensation last month.

“It is high time to put fossil fuel producers, investors, and enablers on notice,” he said at the UN General Assembly. “Polluters must pay.”

It’s a tough sell, however, and wealthy countries like the US are loathe to acknowledge any liability. Without reparations though, some countries will be more reluctant to take aggressive steps to curb their own emissions. This tension has derailed past climate conferences, and might not be resolved at this one. So even as global average temperatures rise and their effects grow larger, momentum is slow to build, and global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow in the meantime.