The Heat is On

Taking Stock of Global Climate Ambition

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Responding to the defining issue of our time

Climate change is here. It’s causing heatwaves, floods, wildfires and droughts, and contributing to the extinction of animals and plants. It’s melting glaciers and raising sea levels. Costs from extreme weather are surging—the global reinsurer Munich Re says 2017 was the most expensive ever;  hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria helped push losses to a staggering US$330 billion. The cascading effects of climate change are disrupting national economies and affecting lives of millions of people.

Worse still, those whom are the least responsible and the least able to cope with the effects of climate change are the ones suffering the most; often being forced to leave their homes and even their countries. Poor women and children are especially vulnerable.

A major concern is that the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, which are already at record highs, are set to keep rising. If the world doesn’t act decisively and quickly to reverse this trend, we run the risk of dangerously high temperatures and escalating costs. In an important scientific report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it became clear that we should do everything possible to try to limit global warming to 1.5℃, or below. The only way to do that is to stop the rise in greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and then make deep cuts to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It won’t be easy, but scientists say that it is possible--and that each degree matters, each year matters, and each decision matters. Millions of lives are in the balance.

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A race we can win

The good news is that climate action has been speeding up in response to the climate crisis, with more and more governments, cities, and companies aligning their plans, policies and projections with the Paris Agreement on climate change—but much more effort is needed.

The Paris Agreement was a landmark decision reached in December 2015 when every country agreed to work together to limit average global temperature rise to “well below” 2℃ above what it was before the industrial revolution. Countries submitted national climate plans explaining how they would help contribute to achieving this goal. The problem is that the plans are not enough.

The year 2020 is important because it is the first opportunity for countries to review their plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and submit more ambitious ones.

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made climate change his top priority. He has committed himself, and the entire UN system, to supporting all leaders who rise to the challenge of climate change. At his Climate Action Summit on 23 September in New York, he has asked governments and companies to come with concrete and realistic plans to reach the 1.5℃ goal.

The biggest priorities governments want to include in their new plans are: 1) Better data and evidence, 2) Stronger links between climate change action and the Sustainable Development Goals; and, 3) Robust plans to monitor and report on progress, according to a new report, The Heat is On: Taking Stock of Global Ambition.

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The UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) prepared the report to inform the Climate Action Summit and it is the most comprehensive review to date of intentions for 2020 and beyond.

It includes analysis of a range of country reports submitted to the UNFCCC and insights from 133 governments that responded to a UNDP survey about their progress against seven key tasks for implementing successful national climate plans.

Vulnerable nations step up on ambition in 2020

The report finds promising signs are emerging from all corners of the globe, but far more work is needed to limit emissions and adapt to the worsening effects of climate change.

Developing nations are the front-runners in preparations to revise NDCs by 2020, with at least 112 nations, representing 53 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, planning for these efforts. They include many of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Within this group, 75 are leading by example and planning to submit more ambitious plans for either reducing greenhouse gases or strengthening their resilience to climate change. The remainder are planning to update key data and information but not take on more climate action.

Industrialized nations, meanwhile, have been more focused on preparing long term strategies to phase out of greenhouse gases by 2050. These are also essential for delivering on the goals of the Paris Agreement, but which now need to be matched by urgent, short-term action plans. The UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit will be an important indicator of global ambition and our promise to future generations.


Progress on climate action is widening across society, although bottlenecks remain

Most importantly, the report makes clear that the world can make significant advances in reducing emissions if we galvanize every country to do more. Since 2015, governments, the private sector, cities, regions, investors, civil society and others have become more involved in finding solutions for climate change, ranging from cheaper solar panels, to drought-resistant crops.

However, bottlenecks remain, especially a lack of finance. Other challenges include disconnects between climate change targets and sector and development plans, lack of engagement by key ministries and society, and limited access to reliable data.

Countries at the forefront of climate action

The joint report clearly demonstrates that most countries are committed to combating climate change, even in the most challenging of development contexts. We are optimistic that leaders, corporations and especially young people will respond to the needs of our planet.

Many countries are already at the forefront of climate action, such as the Marshall Islands, Morocco, the European Union, Ethiopia, Chile and Kazakhstan. The diversity of these leaders demonstrates that ambition can come from anywhere in the world and takes many forms.

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Raising Ambition to Combat Rising Seas

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The Marshall Islands, comprising 29 low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, was the first nation to issue a new NDC last year aimed at reducing vulnerability to storms and sea level rise while cutting the use of fossil fuels.

The government says the nation accounts for a miniscule 0.00001 percent of global emissions but wants to show leadership since it is so exposed to storms, “king tides” and rising sea levels. In 2015, damage cause by Typhoon Nangka cost the nation more than three percent of its GDP in a single night.

The Marshall Islands plans to increase coastal defences and revise building codes to ensure new buildings are elevated.

The country “is at the front of the front line in the battle against climate change, and its front line is its last line of defense,” it says in a 2050 low-carbon climate strategy.

The government also plans to generate more electricity from local, sustainable sources including wind, biofuels made from coconut oil and solar panels floating on lagoons in a shift from imported diesel for its 53,000 citizens.

The updated NDC adds a 2035 goal for cutting GHG emissions by at least 58 percent below 2010 levels, deeper than previous targets for cuts by 2025 and 2030.

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Chasing 1.5℃

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Morocco has won international praise for its radical plans to help limit global warming to the toughest goal in the Paris Agreement of 1.5℃ above pre-industrial times.

Among clean energy projects, the country has one of the world’s biggest solar power plants on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert and is connecting wind farms to the grid to cut dependence on fossil fuels.

It is also taking strong steps to adapt to a warming climate - such as slowing desertification by planting olive groves and orchards of argan trees, whose oil is in high demand from the cosmetics and food industries.

In international rankings, Morocco was second, behind Sweden, in a Climate Change Performance Index of almost 60 nations in 2019 compiled by Germanwatch, New Climate Institute and Climate Action Network International.

“The country has significantly increased the share of renewables over the past five years and has increased new renewable energy capacity,” it said. “The country is well on track for achieving its target of 42% installed renewable energy capacities by 2020 and 52% by 2030.”

Morocco was also one of only two countries, with Gambia, to get the top rating of “1.5 degrees Paris Agreement compatible” for its NDC in an assessment of about 30 nations in the Climate Action Tracker, compiled by European researchers.

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Europe’s “Green Deal”

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A “Green Deal for Europe” will be outlined in coming months as part of a long-term plan to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

The 28-nation European Union has a goal in its NDC of cutting GHG emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The European Parliament and some EU member states want a much tougher goal, of 55 percent by 2030.

“I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050,” the President-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a speech in July, expanding on Commission plans issued in 2018.

She plans a “Green Deal for Europe” in her first 100 days in office starting on 1 November and said it could unlock $1 trillion in investment over the next decade.

The EU’s GHG emissions were down 22 percent from 1990 levels in 2017 at 4.3 billion tonnes, even while the economy grew by 58 percent, out-performing a 2020 goal of a cut of 20 percent during the period. The pace of reductions has slowed in recent years and emissions rose 0.6 percent in 2017, driven up by industry and transport.

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Planting Trees for a Green Legacy

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Ethiopia says it planted more than 350 million tree seedlings on 29 July 2019, in what the government reckons was a one-day world record in a broader campaign to promote sustainable development and slow down climate change.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office says the country’s broad “Green Legacy” project seeks “to raise the public’s awareness about Ethiopia’s frightening environmental degradation”. Children, government workers and many others took part in the mass nationwide planting.

Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, helping to reduce global warming while bringing other benefits such as protecting biodiversity. The important role of land use and forests is therefore recognized in many NDCs and is an opportunity for enhancing ambition.

Ethiopia’s forests shrank from 15.1 million hectares in 1990 to 12.5 million in 2015, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says. Ethiopia’s NDC includes a goal of expanding forest cover by more than seven million hectares by 2030, a key nature-based solution captured in many NDCs.

The country has been among the most prominent on climate change among the least developed countries.

A Climate Action Tracker, compiled by European researchers, ranks Ethiopia among only a few countries whose policies are compatible with limiting global warming to 2℃. Ethiopia was also a founding member of the Vulnerable 20 (V20) group, which represents developing nations most at risk from climate change.

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Closing coal

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Chile announced plans in June 2019 to close eight coal-fired power plants in the next five years and set a long-term goal to become carbon neutral by 2050. Chile, which will host this year’s international climate negotiations in December on implementing the Paris Agreement, said the closures represent 19 percent of the nation’s coal-fired installed generation capacity.

The government aims to shut down all remaining coal-fired power plants by 2040 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning that Chile’s forests will soak up as much CO2 as they grow as is emitted by human activities.

Chile’s national power grid now has 28 coal-fired power plants, accounting for almost 40 percent of electricity generation and emitting 26 percent of the country’s GHGs. Enel Chile, one of the companies affected by the first wave of closures, said it would relocate workers but planned no layoffs. The company said it would focus even more on renewable energies including solar, wind and geothermal power.

Chile is one of few countries with an emissions tax, of $5 per tonne of CO2, applied to thermoelectric power plants above 25MW. The tax, along with abundant sunshine, helps solar energy generation and private engagement in NDC implementation.

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The Winds of Change

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The energy-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is switching to solar and wind power as part of its long-term vision to generate half of its electricity from alternative energies by 2050, cutting its dependence on fossil fuels.

Almost 90 percent of electricity currently comes from coal and natural gas; the remainder from hydropower.

A green economy plan adopted in 2013 set intermediate goals to raise the share of solar and wind in power generation – three percent by 2020 and 10 percent by 2030. By 2017, solar and wind had reached one percent penetration, the government said in its most recent report to the UN.

Kazakhstan’s NDC builds upon this ambitious national strategy for economic transformation that is centered on sustainable development, greater foreign investment, and a push for renewable energy. To enable its implementation, Kazakhstan was the first country in Central Asia to launch a National Emissions Trading System in 2013 to regulate domestic CO2 emissions and promote a low-carbon economy. The government has also adopted an advanced platform for measurement, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.

More recently, the government began incentives for energy efficiency. Kazakhstan is among the world’s top 10 countries with the highest energy consumption per unit of GDP.