Emissions Should Be Plummeting. Instead, They’re Breaking Dangerous New Records

Ahead of COP28, a scathing new UN report warns that the world is barreling toward an avoidable catastrophe. It’s a plea for world leaders to step up their ambition.
People walk in Central Park as smoke from wildfires in Canada caused hazy conditions in New York City earlier this year.
Photograph: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

Next week, world leaders will head to Dubai for the Conference of the Parties—the United Nations’ annual climate meeting—to finalize the first “global stocktake,” assessing progress toward the Paris Agreement’s goals. The UN Environment Programme is not mincing words about how far from those goals nations are. Today, ahead of COP28, it is releasing a damning report: “Broken Record—Temperatures Hit New Highs, Yet World Fails to Cut Emissions (Again).”

It finds that instead of falling, global greenhouse gas emissions went up 1.2 percent between 2021 and 2022 and now sit at a record high. To keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s upper limit of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, emissions would have to crash by 28 percent in only seven years. They’d have to fall by 42 percent if we stand any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, the agreement’s more aspirational goal.

“This year's report is called a ‘broken record’ for a reason,” says Taryn Fransen, a report coauthor and the director of science, research, and data at the World Resources Institute. “Not only did the world blow past previous emissions and temperature records this year, but also as authors, we know we sound like a broken record. Year after year, we say the world is not doing enough to address climate change.”

Humanity is barreling in the wrong direction. Unless nations get serious about increasing their ambitions, the world is on track to wildly overshoot the Paris goals, warming somewhere between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees Celsius, the report notes. That would be catastrophic, given the effects we’re already seeing at 1.1 degrees of warming, and considering that mere fractions of a degree add to the pain. This September was on average 1.8 degrees hotter than pre-industrial times, smashing the month’s previous record by 0.5 degrees. (That doesn’t mean we’ve blown past the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree limit just yet, since that refers to sustained temperatures, not monthly records.)

The report adds that governments are planning on producing more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than the Paris Agreement’s ambitions would allow—and that’s even as the price of renewables continues to crater and electric vehicle adoption is growing. “The issue is the pace,” says Fransen. “Things are just not going fast enough, because we essentially wasted decades not taking action. Now I would say we are taking action, and it's having an effect. But we need to go so much faster.”

Transitioning to renewables is sound economic policy with a host of co-benefits. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the green economy, and it has already created 75,000 jobs, by one estimate. Burning less fossil fuel also improves air quality, reducing health care costs. So just do it already. “It's both a frustration but also good news, because it does show us that it's possible,” says Anne Olhoff, chief scientific editor of the new report. “There's no good reason not to do this. And I think that most countries and decisionmakers are running out of good reasons for not doing so.”

If countries meet their net-zero pledges—meaning they remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as they’re adding—we might be able to limit the rise above pre-industrial temperatures to 2 degrees. “However,” the UN warns, “net-zero pledges are not currently considered credible: None of the G20 countries are reducing emissions at a pace consistent with their net-zero targets.”

Responsibility for climate change falls squarely on rich nations and the most powerful people within them. The 10 percent of the world’s population with the highest income is responsible for almost half of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent contributed just 12 percent, the report points out. While the US makes up 4 percent of the global population, it’s been responsible for 17 percent of warming between 1850 and 2021. The US has started to turn this trend around: Just last week, a national assessment found its emissions actually fell by 12 percent between 2005 and 2019. But that’s nowhere near enough to meet the nation’s climate goals.

Meanwhile, China’s feverish growth means it was responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, but the nation is also investing massively in renewables and EVs. The G20 as a whole currently accounts for more than three quarters of global emissions. India makes up 18 percent of the world’s population, but thus far it has only been responsible for 5 percent of warming.

Failure to make progress now increases humanity’s future reliance on still-nascent technologies like carbon capture, which will attempt to scrub carbon from the atmosphere, the UN emphasizes. Startups are beginning to deploy “direct air capture” tech, but at nowhere near the scale needed to make a dent in emissions. The report notes that these novel techniques are “currently minuscule” at 0.002 gigatons of CO2, compared to humanity’s annual CO2 emissions of around 40 gigatons. “The longer we wait, the more that stock builds up, and then the more of that stock you have to actively remove,” says Fransen.

Another way to remove carbon is to bolster ecosystems like forests; such land-based methods sequester around 2 gigatons of CO2 each year as plants grow, and also boost biodiversity. But they can be fragile. If a massive wildfire tears through, that carbon goes right back into the atmosphere. And overall, land-use decisions are heading in the wrong direction. Each year between 2012 and 2021, 7 gigatons of CO2 were emitted due to land-use changes, according to a commentary published in September in the journal One Earth. Deforestation was the main driver: In the Amazon, for instance, ranchers chop down the rainforest and burn the detritus, both adding carbon to the atmosphere and reducing the landscape’s ability to capture it again. Accordingly, parts of the Amazon are transforming from carbon sinks into carbon sources, further exacerbating climate change.

CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas we have to worry about, the commentary notes. Methane is a far more potent planet-warmer, spewing from oil and gas wells and from cow burps. (The global food system is responsible for 35 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and beef for a quarter of that.) “Cutting down methane emissions from the livestock sector is going to require dietary shifts,” says earth scientist Gokul Iyer of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of Maryland, lead author of the commentary. That’ll be extra challenging as developing nations bring more people into the middle class and the demand for meat grows.

“Black carbon,” too, is a widespread yet underreported problem. This comes from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, like the black smoke you see pouring from a diesel truck, or from cooking charcoal, or even from rocket launches. “Black carbon is a very, very powerful climate pollutant,” says Yusuf Jameel, a researcher at the climate group Project Drawdown and coauthor of a recent report on black carbon. “On a very short timescale, its global warming potential is estimated to be between several hundreds to a thousand times more than carbon dioxide.”

These particles are a major component of air pollution, which kills between 4 to 7 million people a year, and when they fall on snow and ice, they melt the snowpack. (Darker snow absorbs more of the sun’s energy, so it melts faster.) A recent paper found that switching to renewable energy will help preserve the snowpack and provide more drinking water.

There are simple ways to reduce black carbon: Deploy more electric vehicles and switch to cleaner cooking fuels. Doing so would bring almost immediate results, because although it is a powerful planet-warmer, black carbon stays in the sky for no more than a month. Yet vanishingly few countries have considered black carbon in their Paris Agreement climate goals, says Jameel, “Which is a big problem, given how powerful the solution is.”

Some 70,000 delegates will kick off COP28 on November 30, and they’ll have less than two weeks to parse the worsening mess that humanity’s gotten itself into. Today’s report is a stern warning that COP doesn’t just need to result in more ambition, but an absolute realignment of our civilization’s climate trajectory. “We've taken stock, we know what the problems are,” says Fransen. “But the question is, what will leaders at COP28 agree to do about it?”