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Who turned up the temperature? Climate change, heatwaves and wildfires

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forest fire

The cautionary tale of the boiling frog describes how a frog that jumps into boiling water will save itself by jumping straight out, but the frog that sits in the water while it gradually gets hotter and hotter will boil to death. The global warming crisis surrounds us today and we must act now to protect ourselves.

On 15 January 2020, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2019 was the second hottest year on record after 2016, according to the organization’s consolidated analysis of leading international datasets.

Average temperatures for the five-year (2015–2019) and ten-year (2010–2019) periods were the highest on record. Since the 1980s, every decade has been warmer than the previous one. This trend is expected to continue because of record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that has caused our climate to change.

Averaged across the five data sets used in the consolidated analysis, the annual global temperature in 2019 was 1.1°C warmer than the average for 1850–1900, used to represent pre-industrial conditions. 2016 remains the warmest year on record because of the combination of a very strong El Niño event, which has a warming impact, and long-term climate change.

“The average global temperature has risen by about 1.1°C since the pre-industrial era and ocean heat content is at a record level,” said World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Across 2019, Europe sweltered in its hottest-ever July since records began, causing multiple deaths, closed offices and disruptions to flights and vital services. Wildfires also broke out in the Arctic, with smoke-filled air swirling across a larger-than-ever area of Arctic wilderness.

The heat didn’t let up as the seasons changed across the hemispheres, and Australia’s hottest, driest year on record created dangerously flammable conditions, across wider areas and earlier in the wildfire season, with devastating consequences. Australia’s 2019–2020 bushfire season is already the worst on record, burning 18.3 million hectares by mid-January, causing loss of life, homes, livelihood and the reported death of a billion animals. There are still ten weeks to go before the end of the bushfire season.

“The reality is that this is the world we live in with 1.1°C of warming,” says Niklas Hagelberg, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change expert. “These record temperatures, record heatwaves and record droughts are not anomalies but the wider trend of a changing climate. We can only expect worsening impacts as global temperatures rise further.”

As fires continue to smolder across the remains of Australia’s devasted communities, and threaten yet more new ones today, and as Australia, a well-resourced country used to seasonal bushfires, continues to receive international support to face the challenges of the weeks of the remaining bushfire season, it appears that we are woefully underprepared to face our future reality.

UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 reported that on the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, if we rely only on the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, and they are fully implemented, there is a 66 per cent chance that warming will rise to 3.2°C by the end of the century.

“Governments, companies, industry and the public in G20 countries, who are responsible for 78 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, must set targets and timelines for decarbonization,” says Hagelberg. “We must embrace the potential and opportunities of a world powered by renewable energy, efficiency technologies, smart food systems and zero-emission mobility and buildings.”

2020 is the year that governments will meet to take stock of and increase the ambition of their commitments to climate action. It is the year that global emissions must drop by 7.6 per cent and by 7.6 per cent again every subsequent year until 2030 in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Before extreme weather events push more communities and ecosystems beyond their ability to cope, in 2020, as a global community we have the means and opportunity to prevent our planet from boiling but need to act now cannot be ignored.

UN Environment

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World Migratory Bird Day illuminates the dark side of light pollution

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Governments, cities, companies, and communities around the world are taking action to address a significant and growing threat to wildlife, including many species of migratory birds – light pollution.

The issue is the focus for World Migratory Bird Day, observed this Saturday, 14 April, under the theme “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night.”

Light pollution is increasing, with artificially lit outdoor areas rising by 2.2 per cent per year from 2012 to 2016, according to one study cited by the Secretariat of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN environmental treaty.

Currently, more than 80 per cent of the world’s population is estimated to live under a “lit sky”, and the figure is closer to 99 per cent in Europe and North America. 

Altering natural patterns

“Natural darkness has a conservation value in the same way as clean water, air, and soil. A key goal of World Migratory Bird Day 2022 is to raise awareness of the issue of light pollution and its negative impacts on migratory birds,” said Amy Fraenkel, the CMS Executive Secretary. 

Artificial light alters natural patterns of light and dark within ecosystems, and contributes to the deaths of millions of birds each year.

Light pollution can cause birds to change their migration patterns, foraging behaviours and vocal communication, resulting in disorientation and collisions.  

Disorientation and death

Migrating birds are attracted to artificial light at night – particularly when there are low cloud conditions, fog, rain, or when flying at lower altitudes –  luring them to dangers in cities.

Birds become disorientated and, as a result, may end up circling in illuminated areas. With their energy reserves depleted, they risk exhaustion, or worse.

“Many nocturnally migrating birds such as ducks, geese, plovers, sandpipers and songbirds are affected by light pollution causing disorientation and collisions with fatal consequences,” said Jacques Trouvilliez, Executive Secretary of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), another UN treaty.

“Seabirds such as petrels and shearwaters are attracted by artificial lights on land and become prey for rats and cats.” 

Safer skies

Two years ago, countries that are party to the CMS endorsed guidelines on light pollution covering marine turtles, seabirds, and migratory shorebirds.

The recommendations call for Environmental Impact Assessments to be conducted for projects that could result in light pollution.  

Projects should consider the main sources of light pollution at a certain site, the likely wild species to be affected, and facts about proximity to important habitats and migratory pathways.

New guidelines focused on migratory landbirds and bats are currently being developed and will be presented for adoption at a CMS conference next year.

Solutions to light pollution are readily available, said Ms. Frankel. More and more cities worldwide are taking measures to dim building lights during migration phases in spring and autumn, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Call to action

World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated twice a year, on the second Saturday in May and October, in recognition of the cyclical nature of bird migration and the different peak migration periods in the northern and southern hemispheres.

It is organized by a collaborative partnership among the two UN wildlife treaties and the non-profit organization, Environment for the Americas (EFTA).

“World Migratory Bird Day is a call to action for international migratory bird conservation,” said Susan Bonfield, the EFTA Director. 

“As migratory birds’ journey across borders, inspiring and connecting people along the way, it is our aim to use the two days in 2022 to raise awareness of the threat of light pollution and the importance of dark skies to bird migrations.”

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UN focus on plant health, crucial for boosting food security worldwide

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On the very first International Day of Plant Health, marked on Thursday, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for more investment in innovation to boost food security, especially for the billions worldwide living close to the bread line.

Plants under threat

Healthy plants have the power to help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development. But even though plants make up 80 per cent of the food we eat, and provide 98 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, threats to their survival in many cases, are piling up.

According to recent data, up to 40 per cent of food crops are lost due to plant pests and diseases every year, and this affects both food security and agriculture, the main source of income for vulnerable rural communities.

Climate change and human activities are also altering ecosystems and damaging biodiversity while creating new niches for pests to thrive in. 

Furthermore, FAO says that protecting plants from pests and diseases is far more cost effective than dealing with plant health emergencies. That is because once established, plant pests and diseases are often difficult to eradicate, and need to be controlled through sustainable pest and pesticides management.

Human health depends on plants

“On this very first International Day of Plant Health, we reflect on plant health innovations for food security,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, adding that investments are needed in research to find more resilient and sustainable additions to the human diet.

“We need to continue raising the global profile of plant health to transform agrifood systems to be more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable”, he continued.

The protection of plants is essential for people and for the planet, and that is why the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has mapped several priorities for plant health, coinciding with the inaugural Day.

Focusing on sustainable pest management and pesticides through promotion of green and digital plant protection; and creating enabling surroundings for plant health by enhancing the health of soils, seeds, and pollinators, are among the main priorities.

FAO is calling on governments to prioritize plant health and its sustainable management in formulating policies and legislation, and on academia and research institutions to deliver science-based solutions.

Why an International Day?

Having been established as a key legacy of the International Year of Plant Health 2020, the International Day of Plant Health (IDPH) was designated to raise global awareness on how protecting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect biodiversity and the environment, and boost economic development.

Championed by Zambia, it was unanimously adopted in a General-Assembly resolution co-signed by Bolivia, Finland, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania.

Following the first IDPH this year, FAO will organize celebrations for the Day every 12 May at global, regional, national levels, and even potentially, down on a farm, near you.

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Climate: World getting ‘measurably closer’ to 1.5-degree threshold

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There is a 50:50 chance of average global temperature reaching 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels in the next five years, and the likelihood is increasing with time, according to a new report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), published on Tuesday in Geneva. 

The Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update also reveals a 93 per cent likelihood of at least one year between 2022 to 2026 becoming the warmest on record, thus knocking 2016 from the top spot. 

The chance of the five-year average for this period being higher than the last five years, 2017-2021, is also 93 per cent.  

The 1.5 °C target is the goal of the Paris Agreement, which calls for countries to take concerted climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming. 

Probability rising 

“This study shows – with a high level of scientific skill – that we are getting measurably closer to temporarily reaching the lower target of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” said Petteri Taalas, the WMO Secretary-General.  

“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic”, he added, but “rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.” 

The chance of temporarily exceeding the 1.5°C threshold has risen steadily since 2015, according to the report, which was produced by the United Kingdom’s Met Office, the WMO lead centre for climate update predictions.  

Back then, it was close to zero, but the probability increased to 10 per cent over the past five years, and to nearly 50 per cent for the period from 2022-2026.  

Wide-ranging impacts 

Mr. Taalas warned that as long as countries continue to emit greenhouse gases, temperatures will continue to rise. 

“And alongside that, our oceans will continue to become warmer and more acidic, sea ice and glaciers will continue to melt, sea level will continue to rise and our weather will become more extreme. Arctic warming is disproportionately high and what happens in the Arctic affects all of us,” he said. 

The Paris Agreement outlines long-term goals that guide governments towards limiting the global temperature increase to well below 2 °C, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 °C. 

‘Edging ever closer’ 

 The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change further states that climate-related risks are higher for global warming of 1.5 °C than at present, but lower than at 2 °C. 

“Our latest climate predictions show that continued global temperature rise will continue, with an even chance that one of the years between 2022 and 2026 will exceed 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,” said Dr. Leon Hermanson of the UK Met Office, who led the report.  

“A single year of exceedance above 1.5 °C does not mean we have breached the iconic threshold of the Paris Agreement, but it does reveal that we are edging ever closer to a situation where 1.5 °C could be exceeded for an extended period.” 

Last year, the global average temperature was 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial baseline, according to the provisional WMO report on the State of the Global Climate. The final report for 2021 will be released on 18 May.

WMO said back-to-back La Niña events at the start and end of 2021 had a cooling effect on global temperatures.  However, this is only temporary and does not reverse the long-term global warming trend.  

Any development of an El Niño event would immediately fuel temperatures, the agency said, as happened in 2016, the warmest year on record.

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