An oil refinery in the Netherlands

We Are on Course for a Very Dangerous Amount of Warming—But There Is Still Time to Change Course

By Greg Muttitt, Harry Cockburn on December 8, 2023

On Monday, December 3, an event at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28) conference highlighted findings from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Emissions Gap Report 2023.

As well as revealing the scale of the disparity between current emissions trajectories and the targets set out under the Paris Agreement, this year's report warns that the world is heading for a temperature rise of about 3°C by the end of the century unless countries now deliver more than they have already promised to tackle climate change.

Greg Muttitt, a senior associate at the International Institute For Sustainable Development (IISD) and lead author of a chapter of the report, was a panellist at the COP 28 event, where he spoke about what is needed to achieve a global energy transformation in line with the Paris Agreement goals.

As attention now turns to whether a "phase-out" of all fossil fuels can be met in the final COP 28 decision, or whether global leaders ultimately agree on a "phase down," Muttitt explains that existing fossil fuel projects have already put us on course for "very dangerous amount of warming," with urgent action now needed to rapidly halt polluting industries.

What are the headline findings in the Emissions Gap Report?

Greg Muttitt: The key finding of the report as a whole is that we are well off course from what is needed to achieve the Paris goals. Based on current policies, we're headed for three degrees of warming, which is a catastrophic level of warming.

Even taking into account the NDCs [countries' agreed climate plans, known as nationally determined contributions], it's 2.5°C to 2.9°C of warming. So there's a massive gap. There's a gap in 2030 ambition, and to get on course for limiting warming to 1.5°C,  the emissions need to be 42% lower than we're currently on course for.

I focused on a chapter which set up the energy part of the Emissions Report. The first part of the report is about assessing the gap—are we on course? The second part is about policy solutions. Clearly, energy is crucial to this—it accounts for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions—and a central finding of our section of the report is if you add up the fossil fuel infrastructure which is already built, operated over its lifetime, the emissions will be several times what we can afford to emit to limit warming to 1.5°C.

What that means is that some of the existing infrastructure needs to be closed. Some oilfields need to be closed. Coal mines, power plants, and some industrial systems which are fossil fuel-based—all must be closed before the end of their natural economic life, and we need to stop opening up new ones.

If we open new ones, then even more have to be closed early. There's a big overhang of too much fossil fuels.

Why should this concern us with COP 28 underway in Dubai?

Greg Muttitt: It matters in two respects. One is the global stocktake, which starts off a process of governments making new emissions pledges targeting 2035, so it's important to highlight that we're way off track and need a massive scale-up of ambition in emissions reductions.

Also, fossil fuels are going to be a central issue at COP 28—a key measure of COP 28's success is: will there be a clear decision on phasing out all fossil fuels?

The last two COPs have had decisions on "phasing down" unabated coal power. There was a big push at last year's COP in Egypt to expand that to all fossil fuels, and a lot of governments are going into COP 28 with that as a key part of their negotiating mandate.

What the Emissions Gap Report and the UNEP’s Production Gap Report do is add to the evidence base that emphasizes how urgent it is to phase out fossil fuels and actually have quite a rapid phase-out pathway.

What would be a good result from COP this year?

Greg Muttitt: At this point, we need a concrete negotiated decision in which all governments commit to a phase-out of all fossil fuels. We would like to see individual governments talking about what the timeline for that is, but the key piece is phase-out of oil, gas, and coal—all three fossil fuels—in the negotiated decision text.

Has there been any meaningful progress so far and what can countries learn from those who have made any progress?

Greg Muttitt: If you express it in terms of emissions pledges, then the Emissions Gap Report finds there is a bit of progress, but it is way smaller than what it needs to be. At the time of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the projections for 2030 were a 16% [emissions] growth from 2015 levels. Now the projections are a 3% growth. So there is less growth than there was and that is because of upgraded NDCs, but actually there needs to be a very rapid decline—approaching 50%—whereas there is still projected growth, albeit small growth. So there's a bit of progress there.

Where I see more progress is in voluntary initiatives in which governments come together and make higher-ambition pledges. So a couple of great examples of that are the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) where governments commit to phasing out oil and gas production— and the group is growing fast since it was established in Glasgow 2 years ago. The other thing, also from Glasgow, was the Clean Energy Transition Partnership (CETP), which commits to stopping international public finance for fossil fuels and moving it into clean energy.

BOGA signed up its first significant global south producer this year, which was Colombia. Meanwhile the CETP has shifted billions of dollars out of fossil fuels and into clean energy. One thing we really need to see is more governments getting involved in BOGA and CETP and setting more ambitious targets that are more aligned with the science than we're currently seeing.

The UN’s Emissions Gap Report, Production Gap Report, and Adaptation Gap Report revolve around the concept of a "gap." What are the common threads in these reports, and what does the gap mean?

Greg Muttitt: The common thread between the reports is the gap in climate ambition.

Governments need to take climate change more seriously than they are doing. The three reports unpack that in different ways.

As well as the Emissions Gap Report saying they need to cut emissions more deeply than they are currently planning to in their NDC pledges, the Production Gap Report says they need to also plan a reduction in fossil fuel production rather than an increase as currently planned.

The Adaptation Gap Report says there is a gap in adaptation financing, and governments—particularly in the Global North—need to scale up the amount of finance they're providing to enable adaptation in the Global South.

These are three gaps which are all part of the picture on climate ambition, and collectively they say that governments need to get more serious about climate change.

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