World Leaders Speak At UN Climate SummitWhile governments around the globe prepare to attend the next UN climate change conference in Lima (Peru), which is another important milestone on their ultimate journey to Paris in December 2015 – where the post-2020 international framework is to be agreed – the UN Environment Program (UNEP) released the updated Emissions Gap Report 2014. This UNEP synthesis report makes once again clear that the international community has its work cut out for it.

Most importantly, the report finds that the “2020 gap is not becoming smaller. Country pledges and commitments for 2020 result in only a moderate reduction in global emissions below business-as-usual levels.” Note, the gap in 2020 is defined as the “difference between global emission levels consistent with the 2°C target and the emission levels expected if country pledge cases are implemented.”

As a result, while the gap in 2020 is projected to be 7 to 10 gigatonne (Gt) carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), the emissions gap in 2030 is estimated to widen to about 14 to 17 Gt CO2e. However, in the latter case the gap can reasonably be bridged if – according to the UNEP report – “the available global emissions reduction potential is [fully] exploited.” So, on a more hopeful note the report suggests the “potential for emission reductions in 2030 (relative to business-as-usual emissions) is estimated to be 29 Gt CO2e.”

Emissions Gaps in 2025 & 2030

roman Emissions Gaps in 2020 & 2030

Source: UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2014

Conversely, if governments continue to drag their feet until 2020, the report warns about the futility of near-term mitigation cost savings. Inevitably, higher costs are to be incurred at a later stage in tandem with then more burdensome pathways required to mitigate the impact of climate change and may include:

1. Much higher rates of global emission reductions in the medium term;

2. Lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure;

3. Dependence on using all available mitigation technologies in the medium term;

4. Greater costs of mitigation in the medium and long term, and greater risks of economic disruption;

5. Greater reliance on negative emissions;

6. Greater risks of failing to meet the 2°C target, which would lead to substantially higher adaptation challenges and costs.

Overall, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres puts it nicely:

“This important report underscores the reality that at some point in the second half of the century, we need to have achieved climate neutrality – or as some term it zero net or net zero – in terms of overall global emissions [in the interest of a safe future].”

Now, in light of the above findings in advance of the next climate change conference – what should be expected from the Lima summit?

The Australian Climate Institute provides a useful laundry list of ‘decisions’ – based upon their expectations for the talks in Lima – that would render the summit productive in view of the ultimate goal of reaching a meaningful international agreement in Paris 2015. Conference observers could use the following list as a check-off list for assessing initial success:

1. To help transparency and support assessment of country targets, countries need to include in the post-2020 contributions a definition of the information to allow for the translation of individual countries’ post-2020 targets into the international framework.

2. Elements of the post-2020 framework need to be narrowed down further from the broadly supported – and currently under discussion – negotiating text, which includes defined parameters of the outcome.

3. A decision has to be made on ways to increase emissions reductions ambitions before 2020 in light of the projected emissions gap between current and/or pledged actions and the emissions reductions required to avoid a 2ºC increase in global temperature.

A difficult negotiation process will surely precede – from the standpoint of climate protection – desirable decisions given that countries will have to make sure that decisions, first and foremost, are consistent with their national interests. Moreover, they will have to find a “balance between emissions reductions commitments, adaptation, climate finance, and the legal form of contributions,” the Climate Institute notes.

Lastly, and indeed very instructively, the Climate Institute defines three broad scenarios for the outcomes of Lima, which are also well worth a read (here). The following timeline graphic offers a great overview of climate-relevant policy developments in 2014 to date:

roman emission 2014 calendar of international policy developments

Source: The Climate Institute (Australia); go to report (pages 5-6) here for larger version.