UN warns of record high greenhouse gas levels as climate pledges fall short

The Palcaraju mountain, at the Peruvian Huascaran National Park on 23 May, 2022. Saul Luciano Lliuya, a farmer and tourist guide of the Cordillera Blanca is taking the German energy giant RWE to court for causing the melting of the Peruvian glaciers. (Credit: Keystone/AFP/Luka Gonzales)

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reached new highs in 2021, while countries’ climate plans put the world on the path to dangerous global warming, according to two key reports released just 12 days ahead of climate talks in Egypt.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere rose to record levels last year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned on Wednesday. 

Atmospheric concentrations are what is left in the atmosphere after sinks, such as the ocean or forests, absorb a portion of gases emitted by natural processes or human activity.

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released every year by the UN agency in Geneva ahead of climate talks, signalled yet again that human-induced climate change is far from slowing down. 

Methane, a powerful gas responsible for 30 per cent of global temperature rise since the industrial revolution, took the biggest leap from one year to another ever recorded, the report stated.

“The continuing rise in concentrations of the main heat-trapping gases, including the record acceleration in methane levels, shows that we are heading in the wrong direction,” WMO secretary general Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

While less long-lived, methane has over 80 times the heating power of carbon dioxide. Reducing its emissions would be a quick and effective way to fight climate change in the short term, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A growing number of countries have committed to tackle their methane emissions, which mostly come from the agriculture and fossil fuel industries.

Taalas said that while measures should be implemented “without delay”, “methane has a relatively short lifetime of less than 10 years and so its impact on climate is reversible”.

“As the top and most urgent priority, we have to slash carbon dioxide emissions which are the main driver of climate change and associated extreme weather, and which will affect climate for thousands of years through polar ice loss, ocean warming and sea level rise.”

Climate promises fall short. Countries are due to meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt from 6 to 18 November to discuss global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But another report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) also released on Wednesday paints a bleak picture for the future, revealing that climate pledges are off the mark and put the world on course towards a disastrous 2.5ºC of warming by the end of the century.

The report, which analyses countries’ climate plans, referred to as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), found that only a few countries have submitted stronger commitments since last year’s Cop26.

“At the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last year, all countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their climate plans,” said Simon Stiell, UNFCCC’s executive secretary. “The fact that only 24 new or updated climate plans were submitted since Cop26 is disappointing.”

This is an improvement which should lead emissions to peak by 2030, the climate change body said, but it is nowhere near the radical emissions reduction needed to stay below the 1.5ºC Paris target. An IPCC report released in April found that breaching the 1.5ºC limit was almost inevitable as it would need emissions to peak by 2025. 

Stiell urged governments to “strengthen their climate action plans now and implement them in the next eight years”.