The Emissions and Adaptation Gap Reports

by Leonie Schiedek

The road to resolving climate change and its associated challenges is lengthy. Measuring “the gap” between the current plans and policies translated into action and the ambitions that would be necessary to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement can help to identify the necessary key adjustment to the action. Following this idea, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) publishes two annual flagship reports assessing the global advance in two of the main topics of the Paris Agreement [1]: Mitigation and Adaptation

Both reports are available in several languages and as single chapters or as a report as a whole. An executive summary and a document called key “messages” sum up the most important points if one does not want to read through the whole 120-130 pages. 

Scientists from all over the world are involved in the preparation of the reports. There is a steering committee as well as lead and contributing authors, a project coordination team, and reviewers from expert institutions, like universities or research institutes, UNEP, EU institutions or NGOs, among others [2]. The information in the reports is taken from academic sources, for example from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and other recent scientific studies [2]. 

Both reports are coordinated by UNEP DTU Partnership with its office in Denmark, a partnership between the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) [3]. The reports are officially supported by the Scandinavian governments of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but also Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, or several foundations [2][5] . If you’re interested in reading more, you can access the report via the references. However, allow me to provide a brief overview of what the reports are attempting to convey.

Green Recovery: An Opportunity to Close the Emissions Gap?

The Emissions Gap Reports provide an assessment of the gap between countries’ pledges on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions based on science as well as the reductions that would be required to deliver a global temperature increase of below 2°C, as agreed in the Paris Agreement [3]. 

This metric captures the difference between estimated future global GHG emissions if countries adhere to their climate commitments and the “global emission levels from least-cost pathways” consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 2°C and aiming for 1.5°C [2]. 

This year’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 was compiled by an international team of 51 leading scientists from 35 expert institutions in 18 countries, who analyzed all available data. A distinguished steering committee oversaw the assessment process, which is described as “transparent and participatory” [2]. 

The report involves the assessment of progress towards several climate change mitigation measures leading to decarbonisation lately described in the Cancun Pledges and the NDCs [3]. In 2020 it additionally considers the potential implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on G20 emissions projections [3]. The assessment has been conducted since 2011 on an annual basis [2]

From the latest report in 2020 [2], one would probably have expected a rather small gap due to the COVID-19 pandemic; after all, large parts of the economy were paralysed and travelling was not possible either. Unfortunately, the results reveal otherwise: “despite a brief dip in carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century – far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C.” [2]. Nevertheless, crises also always provide some opportunity. If the recovery is designed wisely, as a “green” recovery, it could eliminate 25% of the GHG emissions expected in 2030 under pre-COVID policies [2].

Therewith, we would get finally much closer to reaching the 2°C goal [2]. Following a study published by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the NewClimate Institute green recovery measures follow “all green policy archetypes for the agriculture, energy, industry, transport, and waste sectors defined by Vivid Economics (2020), plus our addition of economy-wide (cross-sector) measures that can be considered green”, for example, subsidies or tax reductions for green products or loan and grants for green Investment [4].

How realistic is a green recovery? The good news is that simultaneously to the development of the report, more and more countries have committed to concrete net-zero emission goals until 2050 at the latest, for example, the USA [2]. The report concludes: 

“The growing number of countries that are committing to net-zero emissions goals by around mid-century is the most significant and encouraging climate policy development of 2020. To remain feasible and credible, it is imperative that these commitments are urgently translated into strong near-term policies and action, and are reflected in the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions).”  


while also stating: 

“Current NDCs remain seriously inadequate to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3°C by the end of the century. Recently announced net-zero emissions goals could reduce this by about 0.5°C, provided that short-term NDCs and corresponding policies are made consistent with the net-zero goals.”


Hence, these ambitions now need to be translated into concrete and even stronger commitments than the ones that are reflected in the current NDC. For that the 2020 report, for example, recommends drawing specific attention to the shipping and aviation sector, as they account for 5 % of the global GHG emissions under the 1.5°C scenario, they are likely to “consume around 60–220 per cent of the available global CO2 budget by 2050” (p.55) [2]. But is a reduction of 0.5°C enough? Not to reach the Paris Agreement targets! Therefore, in addition, the report suggests that the private sector and individuals need to take responsibility. Around two thirds of the global GHG emissions are released by private households, and key sectors which require lifestyle changes to enable climate mitigation include mobility, residential energy use and food [2]. Changes in these areas could be using low-carbon transport modes, low carbon diets, increasing efficiency in supply chains, and using low-carbon energy [2].

Also, the emissions of the world’s richest 1% combined account for more than twice the emissions of the poorest 50%; generally because they have higher consumption based emissions [2]. Thus, to meet the Paris Agreement targets, the wealthy in particular will need to reduce their carbon footprint by a factor of at least 30 [2]. There is an argument to allocate emissions based on products purchased rather than emitting sectors in climate policy to tackle this [2].

The Global Stocktake 2023 will hopefully also be taken as a possibility to adapt the ambitions to the goals to implement actions according to the 2°C pathway. What do you think can to be done to accelerate the decrease of global emissions?

Climate Finance and Nature-Based Solutions: Priority for Adaptation

The Adaptation Gap Reports are much younger than the Emissions Gap Reports and were published in 2014 for the first time [5]. They complement the Emission Gap Reports by assessing the progress in adaptation and demonstrate opportunities to improve. Together with the Emissions Gap Reports, the Adaptation Gap Reports will also inform the Global Stocktake in 2023 to track the implementation of adaptation measures [5]. 

The latest report from 2020 assesses the planning for, the financing and the implementation of adaptation measures [6]. A special focus lies on so called nature-based solutions, like agroforestry or mangrove protection [6]. The results reveal two important points: Finance and the importance of nature-based solutions [6].

While many nations show advances in planning, in developing countries finance constitutes a big gap that needs to be filled to enable real protection against climate impacts like floods or droughts [6]. For example, 72% of the countries assessed “have adopted at least one national-level adaptation planning instrument, while a further 9% are in the process of developing one” [6]. While no current adaptation budget is provided, the annual costs of adaptation for developing countries are estimated to rise from US$ 70 billion to US$ 280-500 billion in 2050 [6]. Thus, together with a faster implementation of the planned measures, public and private finance needs to be increased. In addition, nature-based solutions should become a priority because of their cost-effectiveness [6]. 

Did you know that investing $1.8 trillion globally in five adaptation measures (early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture crop production, global mangrove protection, and investments in making water resources) between 2020 and 2030 could result in a net benefit of $7.1 trillion [7]? This type of information might draw the politicians and private sectors attention to the adaptation report. What is your idea to attract more attention by the public and private sector to accelerate the implementation? 

Author bio: Leonie is a social scientist and sustainability researcher currently working at Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Stockholm, coordinating a project around “innovation and sustainable development in the Nordics”. Before, she has worked as Carlo-Schmid-Fellow at UNEP DTU Partnership in Copenhagen, consulting Latin American ministries in the area of climate transparency and data management.


[1] United Nations (2015). Paris Agreement. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
[2] UNEP (2020). Emissions Gap Report 2020. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
[3] UNEP DTU Partnership (2021). UN Environment Emissions Gap Report. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
[4] Dafnomilis, I., den Elzen, M.G.J., van Soest, H., Hans, F., Kuramochi, T. and Höhne, N. (2020). Exploring the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Global Emission Projections: Assessment of Green versus Non-green Recovery. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and NewClimate Institute. URL: (last accessed: 10.08.2021).
[5] UNEP DTU Partnership (2021). UN Environment Adaptation Gap Reports. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
[6] UNEP (2020). Adaptation Gap Report 2020. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
[7] Global Commission on Adaptation (2019). Adapt now: A global call for leadership on climate resilience. URL: (last accessed: 04.08.2021).
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