Please Mind the Gap

The Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding document created by six countries at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 15, declared that deep cuts in global emissions are required “so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius”. Initially, 85 countries signed up to the Accord, providing pledges to reduce emissions to 2020. One of the main outcomes from the CoP 16 in Cancun was that 140 states endorsed the Copenhagen Accord and made it a part of the UNFCCC framework. Yet, the ambiguous nature of the pledges has caused scientific groups to identify an “emissions gap”.

Current estimates show that emissions levels of 44 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) in 2020 would most probably limit global warming to 2°C (Please see Author’s Note below!). The gap becomes most visible if one considers the business-as-usual scenario, in which these levels reach 56 GtCO2e in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e. To put this into perspective, this gap is approximately equal to the combined total emissions of China and India, the world’s first and third biggest emitters respectively.

Since December 2010, the pledges in the Copenhagen Accord have been institutionalized and countries are expected to deliver on them. Yet, the Cancun agreement did not specify the enforcement mechanisms, or any relevant details, for these pledges. This leaves three aspects which are undetermined for the conditions and rules connected to the pledges.

First, the difference between conditional and unconditional pledges makes it clear that if some states are to implement higher level reductions, they expect climate financing or more ambitious action from other countries. An example of this is the EU’s condition that it will reduce its emissions by 30% instead of 20% if other countries take action.

Second, the accounting rule for land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) remain a point of debate. These rules can be used to weaken mitigation targets, since credit can be given for LULUCF activities that would have happened anyway, even without an emissions reduction pledge.

Third, in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, surplus emissions might be carried over for a possible second commitment period. This would mean that industrialized countries could use these emissions in their accounting for reduction targets.

These uncertainties have caused UNEP to demonstrate four different scenarios of how states might deliver on their pledged emissions cuts (for the detailed numbers, see the Author’s Note):

Estimated Global Emissions in 2020 (GtCO2e)

Remaining Gap (GtCO2e)

Scenario 1: “Unconditional pledge, lenient rules”



Scenario 2: “Unconditional pledge, strict rules”



Scenario 3: “Conditional pledge, lenient rules”



Scenario 4: “Conditional pledge, strict rules”



These scenarios can best be described through the following characteristics.

Firstly, industrialized states could move to fulfilling their conditional pledges rather than their unconditional ones. Most of the time, the ‘condition’ is that other countries take more ambitious action. If this were to be ignored and these states take more ambitious action themselves, the gap would decrease significantly. Also, most developing states have given ‘adequate climate financing’ as their condition. Seeing as the Cancun agreement foresees the creation of a new global climate action fund, specifically targeting mitigation in these countries, it becomes realistic that they can fulfill their conditional pledges.

Secondly, industrialized states can reduce the gap by approximately 0.8 GtCO2e if they enforce stricter accounting rules on LULUCF. This refers to credits given for carbon removals from existing forests and other sinks, which would have occurred without reduction pledges. The minimization of these ‘LULUCF credits’ would result in a gap reduction. Also, if the rules of accounting for surplus emissions under the Kyoto Protocol were strengthened to minimize the weakening of mitigation targets (surplus emissions mentioned above), this would reduce the gap by approximately 2.3 GtCO2e.

It becomes evident that even in the best case scenario, the emissions gap remains at 5 GtCO2e in 2020. This means that the Copenhagen Accord pledges address the problem of reducing emissions, but the pledges made by the states are inadequate. The question then is: how can the gap be reduced further? Unfortunately, the only answer provided by UNEP to this question is that “this gap could be closed if countries were to adopt more ambitious actions or pledges”. Therefore, tackling global warming is yet again dependent on political will to commit.

Author’s Note: In the UNEP report on the emissions gap, there are levels of uncertainty in the calculations which have been omitted here. The ‘emissions gap’ described as 44 GtCO2e actually takes the median estimate, while the range the gap might take is actually 39 GtCO2e to 45 GtCO2e. Since the ‘gap’ is “the difference between emissions levels for different temperature targets and expected emissions in 2020”, it inherits a level of uncertainty. Yet, the 44 GtCO2e target gives a 66% or better chance to meet the 2°C target.

The same applies to all numbers given here – they are the median of the estimate. The ranges, which include the margins of error, have been omitted to make the UNEP report clearer. The table below shows the findings of the report, with the ranges.

Estimated Global Emissions in 2020 (in GtCO2e)

Remaining Emissions Gap (with a 66% or greater chance to stay below 2°C)

Business As Usual



Scenario 1



Scenario 2



Scenario 3



Scenario 4



The full report can be found online:


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