Emissions Gap Report Calls for Rapid Transformation of Societies

It lays out a credible pathway for doing it; all that's missing is the will.

Please mind the gap

Chunyip Wong/ Getty Images

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), is blunt and brutal in her foreword to this year's Emissions Gap report:

"This year’s report tells us that unconditional NDCs [nationally determined contributions] point to a 2.6°C increase in temperatures by 2100, far beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement. Existing policies point to a 2.8°C increase, highlighting a gap between national commitments and the efforts to enact those commitments. In the best-case scenario, full implementation of conditional NDCs, plus additional net-zero commitments, point to a 1.8°C rise. However, this scenario is currently not credible."
Emissions gaps
Mind the Gaps.


The gaps are gaping between where we are, what we promised, and where we have to go. As for the promises made by individual countries—the NDCs—they are demonstrably not enough. "Neither current policies nor NDCs currently trace a credible path from 2030 towards the achievement of national net-zero targets."

Headlines about this report are dire. The Guardian picks up a quote from the Key Messages memo and writes, "Climate crisis: UN finds 'no credible pathway to 1.5C in place'." It is a phrase that doesn't actually appear in the report and is taken out of context from the paragraph where it is found:

"As climate impacts intensify, the Emissions Gap Report 2022 finds that the world is still falling short of the Paris climate goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place. Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid an accelerating climate disaster. The report looks at how to deliver this transformation, through action in the electricity supply, industry, transport and buildings sectors, and the food and financial systems."

It is such a weird phrasing because the whole report is about laying a credible path, albeit a difficult one. Once again, we know what we have to do; what's missing is the will. Perhaps that's why, in a press release, Inger Andersen says it is so dire:

"This report tells us in cold scientific terms what nature has been telling us, all year, through deadly floods, storms and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast. We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster."

per capita emissions
Per Capita Emissions.


One of the most interesting charts in the report shows who is emitting the most. To nobody's surprise, it is the rich—and their emissions are growing the fastest. I have never seen numbers for the top 0.01%, and they are staggering.

"The bottom 50 percent emit on average 1.6 tCO2e/capita and contribute 12 percent of the global total, whereas the top 1 percent emit on average 110 tCO2e/capita and contribute 17 percent of the total. Super-emitters in the top 0.1 percent (average 467 tCO2e/capita) and the top 0.01 percent (2,531 tCO2e/ capita) have seen the fastest growth in personal carbon footprints since 1990." Time for some major carbon taxes on private jets and fourth homes.

What Does a Root-and-Branch Transformation Look Like?

Avoid Lockins


The report then lists what this root-and-branch transformation looks like, breaking emissions sources into five global economic sectors: energy supply; industry; agriculture, forestry, and other land-use change (AFOLU); transport; and buildings. A key issue to deal with immediately is to avoid lock-ins.

"Decisions made today can define emissions trajectories for decades to come. For example, a building lasts 80 years on average; a coal-fired power plant 45 years; a cement plant 40 years. Pipelines and gas connections create decade-long dependencies. Interventions can also lock in behavior and policies that reinforce incumbent systems. Actions today that lock in a high-energy and high-carbon future for decades must be avoided, including avoiding new fossil fuel infrastructure for electricity and industry, car-centered city or regional planning, and inefficient new buildings. These actions do not always result in immediate emission reductions, but are fundamental for the long-term transition."

And, of course, we are still building highways, glass towers, suburban sprawl, and it is all being locked in.

Electricity Supply


Electricity is still the single largest source of energy-related CO2 at 42%. Amazingly, people still fight power lines from Quebec, onshore wind turbines in the U.K., and the kind of infrastructure we need for a secure renewable electricity supply, when "at least four shifts need to occur to decarbonize power: (1) steeply accelerating the share of zero-carbon power, (2) phasing out unabated coal and gas generation, (3) adapting grid/storage and demand management, and (4) ensuring reliable energy access for all."

Industry transformation


Here, we need to electrify everything, reduce demand for steel and concrete, and get circular.

Transport sector


Electric cars alone won't save us; it is what they call a false dichotomy. The report also gets that this is a land use problem, as well as a hardware problem; we have to make our cities work without private cars.

"A significant shift to lower-emitting modes, including public transport, walking, and cycling, is required alongside the electrification of transport modes to align with a well-below 2°C and 1.5°C pathway. The number of kilometers of public transit per 1,000 inhabitants must be doubled by 2030, while the number of kilometers of high-quality bicycle lanes per 1,000 inhabitants should be increased fivefold."

Building Sector


No more McMansions!

"Energy use and emissions from space and water heating and cooling are directly linked to the total amount of floor area that undergoes active thermal control. Furthermore, the greater the extent of new floor area that is constructed, the more materials are required, and the higher are the embodied emissions. The amount of floor area used per person vastly differs across countries, but also within countries. Minimizing the amount of floor area, which is well above the area necessary to meet basic needs, can have a large effect on emissions in the sector."

They also call for insulation and heatpumpification and getting off gas.

Food system changes required


Food and agriculture are a major source of emissions, but there are so many other issues that go with it. "Transforming food systems is not only important for addressing climate change and environmental degradation, but also essential for ensuring healthy diets and food security for all." We need demand-side changes, including sustainable and nutritionally balanced diets and reductions in food waste.

On top of all this, there has to be a realignment of the financial system. "A global transformation from a heavily fossil fuel- and unsustainable land use-dependent economy to a low-carbon economy is expected to require investments of at least US$4–6 trillion a year, a relatively small (1.5–2 percent) share of total financial assets managed, but significant (20–28 percent) in terms of the additional annual resources to be allocated."

OK, Doomers, We Have a Credible Path Here

It's clear that the national commitments that have been made are inadequate, and every nation has to make better ones. It's also clear that if we don't do anything or keep on the path that we are on now, then we are in serious trouble. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is not kidding when he says, "The window to take urgent climate action is closing rapidly. Unless countries dramatically scale up their efforts to counter the climate crisis, the world faces a global catastrophe."

But as climate journalist Amy Westervelt noted after the last IPCC report (which also laid out a path for staying under 1.5°C), it "made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests."

Even the United Nations is running "no credible pathway" headlines when their own document lays out exactly that. Last word to Inger Andersen:

"I urge every nation and every community to pore over the solutions offered in this report, build them into their NDCs, and implement them. I urge everyone in the private sector to start reworking their practices. I urge every investor to put their capital towards a net-zero world. The transformation begins now."
View Article Sources
  1. "Emissions Gap Report 2022." United Nations Environment Programme, 2022.