What Is The Emissions Gap?

The difference between what emission levels are likely to be in 2030, and what they should be if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, is called the Emissions Gap. We explain the situation up to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Industrial Pollution From Factories
The UN says that instead of narrowing, the ’emissions gap’ is getting wider. Bad news for climate change.

Every year, since 2010, the United Nations Environment Programme produces its flagship report on climate change, known as the Emissions Gap Report. The report provides an annual update of global greenhouse gas emissions, in order to inform debate on global warming within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and elsewhere.

The report analyzes the ’emissions gap’ – namely, the difference between what emission levels are likely to be in 2030, and what they need to be if we are to reach the goals laid down by the Paris Climate Agreement – that is, to limit warming to “well-below 2°C above preindustrial levels” and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

To assess progress, the report examines the expected size of the gap in 2030 and the progress countries are making in closing it. In particular it scrutinizes implementation of the commitments made by countries to reduce their emissions under the Paris Agreement – commitments referred to as nationally determined contributions or NDCs.

2020 Emissions Gap Report (UNEP)

The 2020 Emissions Gap Report shows a climate system under threat from rising emissions and government inaction. Total emissions in 2019 hit a record high of 59.1 GtCO2e (billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent), of which 38.0 GtCO2e came from fossil fuels and roughly 6.8 GtCO2e from deforestation and other anthropogenic land use. The rest came from emissions of man-made methane (9.8 GtCO2e), man-made nitrous oxide (2.8 GtCO2e) and fluorinated gases (1.7 GtCO2e). 1 See also: Greenhouse Gas Statistics Lack Consistency.

The emissions gap – the difference between what emission levels are likely to be in 2030, and what they need to be – varies according to whether the target is 1.5°C or 2°C.

In addition, the size of the emissions gap depends upon whether countries fulfill their unconditional NDCs and their more onerous conditional NDCs.

The Different Emissions Gaps

Current Policies But No Additional Measures

Assuming current policies remain in place but no additional measures are taken, emissions will reach 60 GtCO2e by 2030. But in order to limit the rise in Earth’s temperature to 1.5°C, emissions must fall to 25 GtCO2e per year by 2030. This leaves a gap between these two figures of 35 GtCO2e.

To limit the rise to 2°C, emissions must fall to 41 GtCO2e – which leaves a gap of 19 GtCO2e. 2

Fulfillment of All Unconditional NDCs

The fulfillment of all unconditional pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement will result in emissions of 57 GtCO2e by 2030. But as we have seen, in order to achieve the 1.5°C goal, emissions must not exceed 25 GtCO2e. This leaves a gap between these two figures of 32 GtCO2e.

In order to achieve the slightly easier 2°C goal, emissions must not exceed 41 GtCO2e. But this still leaves a gap between these two figures of 16 GtCO2e.

Fulfillment of All Conditional NDCs

The fulfillment of all conditional pledges under the Paris Climate Agreement will result in emissions of about 54 GtCO2e by 2030. Since in order to achieve the 1.5°C goal emissions must not exceed 25 GtCO2e. This leaves a gap between these two figures of 29 GtCO2e.

In order to achieve the 2°C goal, emissions must not exceed 41 GtCO2e. But this still leaves a gap between these two figures of 13 GtCO2e.

Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (WMO)

The publication of the U.N. Emissions Report coincides with the release of the World Meteorological Organization’s “Greenhouse Gas Bulletin“, the annual update of trends in atmospheric concentrations of the most important greenhouse gases (GHGs): carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and F-gases (fluorinated GHGs). Produced by WMO’s Atmospheric Environment and Research Division, the bulletin is based on data obtained from observation networks around the globe. The three gases mentioned contribute roughly 88 percent of the extra radiative forcing caused by GHGs since preindustrial times. 3

What’s The Difference Between Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Concentrations?
The term “emissions” refers to the greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. Roughly 50 percent of these emissions are absorbed by the oceans or plants. 4 The term “concentrations” refers to the accumulated amount of GHG (the other 50 percent) that remains in the atmosphere. For example, the 2019 WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2018, an increase of 2.5 ppm.

What is the Current Emissions Gap?

If Countries Fulfill All Their Unconditional NDCs

According to the UN Emissions Gap Report 2020, if all unconditional NDCs are fully implemented, emissions are predicted to reach 56 GtCO2e in 2030. As a result, we will exceed our 1.5°C emissions target for 2030 by 31 GtCO2eq, and we will exceed our 2°C emissions target by 15 GtCO2eq.

Bottom line: fulfillment of all unconditional NDCs still leaves an emissions gap of at least 15 GtCO2eq, between the level of greenhouse gas emissions needed to achieve global warming of 2°C and the emissions we are likely to produce.

If Countries Fulfill All Their Conditional NDCs

If countries fulfill both their unconditional NDCs and their conditional NDCs, emission levels could fall another 2 gigatons to 54 GtCO2e. But this still leaves an emissions gap of 29 gigatons (1.5°C) or 13 gigatons (2°C).  5

By any reckoning, the size of this emissions gap represents a climate crisis in the making. Let’s hope that during the post-COVID period 2021-2030, governments use the opportunity to rebuild their economies in a greener, more sustainable way. For a less hopeful viewpoint, please read our article: Our Climate Plan Can’t Cope.

What Cuts Are Needed To Close The Emissions Gap?

Countries need to increase their NDC ambitions threefold to achieve the 2°C goal and more than fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

Of course, if governments had instigated serious climate change mitigation back in 2010, after the publication of the first U.N. Emissions Gap Report, things would have been very different.

The annual cuts in emissions needed to meet the projected emissions levels in 2030 for 2°C and 1.5°C would have been 0.7 per cent and 3.3 per cent per year, respectively. Now, the necessary cuts are far more dramatic: 2.7 per cent a year from 2021-2030 to achieve the 2°C target and 7.6 per cent a year to achieve 1.5°C. 6

The Paris Agreement (2015) introduced a step-by-step procedure to allow countries to increase their NDCs every five years. Given the delay imposed by COVID-19, 2021 is the critical next step in the process. This is really the last opportunity for countries to make proper commitments. Waiting until 2025 to strengthen NDCs will leave it too late to close such a large emissions gap by 2030.

If annual emissions of greenhouse gases fall no further than 54 gigatons in 2030, current projections indicate this will result in global warming of 3°C by 2100. In such a world, Australia could become a death-trap, permafrost could suffer a runaway thaw, while 275 million people could be submerged and the Amazon Rainforest could experience runaway savannization. 7

See our article: How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.

Are Countries Fulfilling All Their Current NDCs?

No. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, despite NDCs and despite countless scientific warnings. Far from peaking by 2020 – up to now regarded as essential – there is little sign of them peaking by 2030.

Take the G20, for instance. Members of the G20 include 19 countries plus the EU. That is to say: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the EU. 

As of January 2020, of the G20 members, six countries (the EU28, China, India, Mexico, Russia and Turkey) are projected to meet their unconditional NDC targets. But seven countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, South Africa and the USA) are currently not on track to meet 2030 NDC commitments. In the case of Argentina, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to judge. Since the G20 accounts for roughly 78 per cent of global emissions (including land use), their efforts effectively determine the success of global emission trends and thus whether or not the 2030 emissions gap will be closed. 6

Reducing Carbon Emissions

In order to reduce their GHG emissions, countries need to switch to low-carbon alternatives. The most promising ones include: hydropower (hydroelectricity), solar energy, organic biomass, geothermal energy, and wind power (offshore/onshore).

Renewables still in development include hydrogen power and the marine energies wave and tidal power.

Do Governments Want To Solve The Climate Crisis?

Some do, but some seem to be more interested in defending their own national interests. See, for example, UN Climate Talks.

“For ten years, the Emissions Gap Report has been sounding the alarm – and for ten years, the world has only increased its emissions,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “There has never been a more important time to listen to the science. Failure to heed these warnings and take drastic climate action to reverse emissions means we will continue to witness deadly and catastrophic heatwaves, storms and pollution.” 8

Despite the Secretary-General’s warning, and the fact that both the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 and the WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin were available to negotiators at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid (December 2019), the discussions remained deadlocked. Clearly, some governments were not impressed enough by the arguments of either the U.N. or the WMO.

Chinese Invest In More Coal-Fired Power Plants

And so the foot-dragging goes on. In 2009, G20 members passed a resolution to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies, although as yet no country has committed to fully phasing these out by a specific year. 

Meantime, India and China – no doubt buoyed up by the U.S. enthusiasm for its own coal industry – are both continuing to build coal-fired power plants with life-spans of 40 years and upwards. This will ramp up the greenhouse effect and guarantee rising temperatures for decades to come.

Coal remains China’s largest source of electricity, accounting for more than 72 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in 2015. 9 More worryingly, according to a Boston University database, China has invested more than $50 billion in overseas coal-fired power plants since 2000. Edward Cunningham, a Harvard University specialist on China and its energy markets, says that China is building or planning more than 300 coal plants in places as far apart as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines. 10

Meantime, the extraction of unconventional deposits of petroleum (tar sands oil), as well as widespread fracking of unconventional natural gas (shale gas), continues on a large scale across the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice said: “We can no longer ignore the folly of business as usual while the world around us crumbles in the face of the climate crisis. We have no choice but to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without the political will to implement transformative climate action, we doom our children to an unthinkable future.” 11

Concrete Manufacture

Cement industry CO2 emissions are also huge. What’s more, cement use is set to rise significantly, due to increasing global demand in the emerging markets of South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. According to think-tank Chatham House, the floor area of the world’s buildings is projected to double by 2060, necessitating a 25 percent jump in cement production by 2030.

Impact of COVID-19 on the Emissions Gap

During 2020, the COVID-19 shutdowns caused a major drop in emissions due to reductions in travel, lower industrial activity and lower electricity generation. As a result, emissions of carbon dioxide are predicted to fall by 7 percent in 2020. Nonetheless, this dip is likely to have a negligible impact on global warming by 2050. See also: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

The only chance to narrow the emissions gap is for governments to invest in climate action – meaning climate mitigation and adaptation – as they rebuild their economies post-COVID. This means signing up to more ambitious pledges at the next set of UN climate talks — due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021.

What do we mean by “more ambitious pledges”? Put simply, the substance of pledges need to be roughly tripled to achieve the 2°C target, and increased at least fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C target. A business-as-usual scenario, by contrast, is likely to widen the emissions gap significantly.


  1. UN Emissions Gap Report 2020.” U.N. Environment Programme. []
  2. Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Headline Statements. []
  3. WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletins.” 2019. World Meteorological Organization. []
  4. About 26 percent is absorbed by the ocean, 28 by plants, the remainder stays in the atmosphere. “How Much CO2 Can the Oceans Take Up?” Rob Monroe. Scripps Institution of Oceanography. July 3, 2013. []
  5. “Emissions Gap Report 2020. UNEP. []
  6. Emissions Gap Report 2019. Executive Summary. UNEP. [][]
  7. “The three-degree world: the cities that will be drowned by global warming.” Josh Holder, Niko Kommenda, Jonathan Watts. The Guardian. Fri 3 Nov 2017. []
  8. “Emissions Gap Report warns about missing Paris Agreement targets.” World Meteorological Organization (WMO). November 27, 2019. []
  9.  “Chinese coal-fired electricity generation expected to flatten as mix shifts to renewables.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. September 27, 2017. []
  10. “Why Is China Placing A Global Bet on Coal?” Steve Inskeep, Ashley Westerman. NPR. April 29, 2019. []
  11. “Emissions Gap Report 2019: WWF Response.” wwf.panda.org/ November 26, 2019. []
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