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Why does it matter to save energy?

wind turbineGreenhouse gases rise to record high levels in 2016

Widespread adoption of existing technologies such as wind and solar energy could cut global emissions of greenhouse gases by 60-80%, according to a UN Report on the "Emissions Gap".

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2016 according to the latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin published at the end of October 2017 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The globally averaged concentration of CO2 was 403.3 parts per million (ppm), the highest level in 800,000 years.

The record annual increase of 3.3 ppm was attributed in part to the strong El Niño event of 2015/16, which caused droughts in tropical regions thus reducing the amount of CO2 absorbed by vegetation. Hence, the planet's ability to cope with human-derived record CO2 emissions was compromised even more than usual. Moreover, the increase was greater than that seen following the last strong El Niño event in 1997-98.

"Heading for dangerous temperature increases"

There were also increases in atmospheric levels of other greenhouse gases, including methane, which reached a new high of 1853 parts per billion, and nitrous oxide. The WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, warned that "Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris climate change agreement. Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet." The Bulletin pointed out that when the earth last had comparable levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, some 3-5 million years ago, the average temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher than at present.

In a subsequent statement released on 6 November, the WMO predicted that 2017 will be among the three hottest years on record. It details extraordinary weather, including unprecedented temperatures exceeding 50°C in parts of Asia, record-breaking hurricanes in the Caribbean and Atlantic, monsoon floods affecting millions, and drought in East Africa.

Urgent need to close emissions gap, says UN

In a separate publication, the UN's Emissions Gap Report, released on 31 October, highlights the shortfall between the emissions reductions promised by nations in the Paris Agreement, and what is required to achieve the goal of keeping global average temperature rises "well below" 2°C. It makes sobering reading, concluding that:

"there is an urgent need for accelerated short-term action and enhanced longer-term national ambition if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to remain achievable"

Among the Report's key findings are:

  • The pledges made in Paris, so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), will account for only one-third of the emission reductions required.
  • Unless urgent action is taken by 2030, it is "extremely unlikely" that the 2°C goal can be reached.
  • More ambitious NDCs are needed by 2020, making 2018 a crucial year for negotiations.

Is there any good news?

The Report says that it is entirely possible to close the gap by 2030 by adopting existing and cost-effective technologies. These fall chiefly into just a few familiar categories:

  • solar and wind energy
  • efficient appliances
  • efficient passenger cars
  • stopping deforestation
  • promoting afforestation

It also acknowledges the vital role of subnational and non-state actors, such as regional and local governments and businesses, which are key to enhancing future ambitions.

Emissions stabilizing

Industrial emissions from fossil fuel combustion, cement production and other processes have stabilized since 2014, and were estimated at 35.8 gigatonnes CO2 for 2016. This is in spite of annual increases in global gross domestic product (GDP) of 2-3% during this time. Total global emissions of greenhouse gases are estimated at 51.0 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent for 2016, representing a rise of 0.5% on 2015.

Both reports will form a foundation for discussion at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, held 6-17 November 2017 and chaired by the Fijian government.