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Oct. 26, 2021, 1:57 p.m. EDT

‘A leadership gap’: U.N. says U.S. and major nations’ emissions pledges backload much of the effort

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Rachel Koning Beals

A new U.N. report said pledges by major countries to slow greenhouse gas emissions create some hope that the globe can slow destructive warming, but such plans aren’t strict enough and leave too much of the work for later decades.

“The clock is ticking,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday. “This is a moment of truth.”

His comments accompany the release of the report by the U.N. Environment Programme  and time with the start this Sunday of what many consider an ambitious and pivotal two-week climate summit in Glasgow, known as COP26.

“The emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap,” Guterres said. “But leaders can still make this a turning point to a greener future instead of a tipping point to climate catastrophe.”

The report concluded that recent announcements by dozens of countries, including the U.S., to hit “net-zero” emissions by 2050 could, if fully implemented, limit a global temperature rise to 2.2 degrees Celsius (4 F). That’s encouraging, the officials said, but still misses the allowable target agreed upon in the Paris climate accord of capping global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) compared to pre-industrial times.

An earlier warning from the U.N. said the Earth is getting so hot, more quickly than first thought, that temperatures in about a decade without intervention will probably blow past the 2-degree mark that world leaders have sought to prevent.

The Paris talks had encouraged participants to work toward limiting warming to a 1.5-degree increase.

The European Union, the U.S., the U.K., and dozens of other countries have set net-zero emissions targets by expanding renewable energy use, including nuclear, pushing electric vehicles and mulling how to make carbon capture scalable. The U.S., and some other major economies, have said they can cut emissions in half by as soon as 2030, an aggressive pledge that raised some skepticism even before the U.N. weighed in with its latest report.

The UNEP report said the net-zero goals that many governments announced ahead of the Glasgow summit remain vague, with much of the defining work on emissions cuts pushed beyond 2030.

Read: White House eyes new climate-change strategies in Biden bill after Manchin setback

Guterres said accepted science and cooperation in the fight against climate change were important steps but “now, leaders need to be just as clear in their actions.”

“They need to come to Glasgow with bold, time-bound, front-loaded plans to reach net zero,” he said.

The U.N. report said attention on three areas may speed up the path to the emissions-cutting goals: linking post-pandemic fiscal recovery to curbing emissions, slashing methane pollution, which is a more potent but shorter-lasting greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and building a global carbon market, in which bigger polluters can trade for offsets. 

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