Emissions Gap Report Asks 'Are We There Yet?'

UNEP answers: Not even close.

Mind the Gap

Andrew Aitchison/ Getty Images

Every year the United Nations Environment Programme issues the Emissions Gap report, where they look at the difference between the greenhouse gas emission reductions needed to limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees, which would be somewhat less horrible. They also look at how nations are doing compared to their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), the promises they made in the Paris Agreement. As they explain, "This difference between 'where we are likely to be and where we need to be' is known as the ‘emissions gap.'"

It's a big report, actually more like a book-sized collection of reports by different authors covering different subjects, but can be summarized in one line, shorter than a tweet, from the executive summary:

"Are we on track to bridging the gap? Absolutely not."

The report notes that emissions went down this year because of the pandemic, although this won't have much of a long-term effect; on its own, it will amount to the lowering of average global temperature of about a hundredth of a degree. But as they say about never letting a crisis go to waste, "the unprecedented scale of COVID-19 economic recovery measures presents the opening for a low-carbon transition that creates the structural changes required for sustained emissions reductions. Seizing this opening will be critical to bridging the emissions gap."

The report suggests stimulus investments in "zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, for example, low-carbon and renewable energy, low-carbon transport, zero-energy buildings and low-carbon industry" and "nature-based solutions, including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation." Instead, we are already seeing investments in airlines and oil pipelines, and rolling back of environmental regulations.

Consumption Versus Production

Treehugger has often covered the question of whether we should be concentrating on consumption-based emissions, rather than the production-based emissions that are measured for those Nationally Determined Contributions. If someone in Canada buys a Kia, should the emissions from building it count against Korea where it is made, or against Canada's NDC budget? It is an important question that the Report addresses.

"There is a general tendency that rich countries have higher consumption-based emissions (emissions allocated to the country where goods are purchased and consumed, rather than where they are produced) than territorial-based emissions, as they typically have cleaner production, relatively more services and more imports of primary and secondary products."

It is an important issue to consider if there is a strong post-pandemic economic recovery, because demand in the richer countries will increase emissions in the countries where all these products are made. That is why it is so important to "pursue an economic recovery that incorporates strong decarbonization" that is universal; we can't make investments in zero-energy buildings here if we buy all our building parts and components from China.

Lifestyle Changes

After spending the year writing about how lifestyle changes matter – and often dealing with those who say "no, it is the government and regulation and evil oil companies" – it was reassuring for me to see that the Report acknowledges that in fact, our lifestyle choices do matter. You can still blame the government though:

"Lifestyle emissions are influenced by social and cultural conventions, the built environment and financial and policy frameworks. Governments have a major role in setting the conditions under which lifestyle changes can occur, through shaping policy, regulations and infrastructure investments."

But that doesn't let the individual off the hook; "At the same time, it is necessary for citizens to be active participants in changing their lifestyles through taking steps to reduce personal emissions." The report lists all the usual suspects: eat less meat, don't fly so much, restrict the use of cars, and get a bike.

Eat the Rich

The top 1%


Finally and most controversially, and what has been drawing headlines around the world, is the discussion about equity.

"Compliance with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement will require reducing consumption emissions to a per capita lifestyle footprint of around 2–2.5 tCO2e by 2030. This means that the richest 1 percent would need to reduce their current emissions by at least a factor of 30, while per capita emissions of the poorest 50 percent could increase by around three times their current levels on average."

This is the definition of the 1.5-degree lifestyle that we have been discussing on Treehugger, living in a way where lifestyle emissions are limited to 2.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. The section is based on a number of studies we have covered, such as those discussed in "Are the Rich Responsible for Climate Change?" and "The Rich Are Different From You and Me; They Emit Way More Carbon."

"To design equitable low-carbon lifestyle approaches, it is important to consider these consumption inequities and identify populations with very high and very low carbon footprints. Central to addressing consumption inequities is reframing the meaning of ‘progress’ and ‘affluence away from the accumulation of income or energy-intensive resources to the achievement of well-being and quality of life."

Essentially, the very rich are burning lots of energy and putting out tons of carbon and the very poor are actually suffering from energy poverty. Somehow, it all has to be shared more equitably, drastically cutting the carbon consumed by the rich and raising the level consumed by the very poor. Without using the scary word degrowth, this section of the report acknowledges that change is necessary.

"In seeking to shift focus from economic growth towards equity and well-being within ecological limits, a move towards sustainable lifestyles is likely to challenge powerful vested interests."

That's an understatement. The report ends by noting that "ultimately, the accomplishment of low-carbon lifestyles will require deep-rooted changes to socioeconomic systems and cultural conventions."

Somehow, it's hard to see that happening by 2030.