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UN study shows accelerating climate change on land, sea and in the atmosphere

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A wide-ranging UN climate report, released on Tuesday, shows that climate change is having a major effect on all aspects of the environment, as well as on the health and wellbeing of the global population.

The report, The WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019, which is led by the UN weather agency (World Meteorological Organization), contains data from an extensive network of partners.

It documents physical signs of climate change – such as increasing land and ocean heat, accelerating sea level rise and melting ice – and the knock-on effects on socio-economic development, human health, migration and displacement, food security, and land and marine ecosystems.

‘Way off track’ to meet 1.5 degree target

Writing in the foreword to the report, UN chief António Guterres warned that the world is currently “way off track meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for”, referring to the commitment made by the international community in 2015, to keep global average temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Several heat records have been broken in recent years and decades: the report confirms that 2019 was the second warmest year on record, and 2010-2019 was the warmest decade on record. Since the 1980s, each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.

The warmest year so far was 2016, but that could be topped soon, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Given that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase, the warming will continue. A recent decadal forecast indicates that a new annual global temperature record is likely in the next five years. It is a matter of time”, added the WMO Secretary-General.

In an interview with UN News, Mr. Taalas said that, there is a growing understanding across society, from the finance sector to young people, that climate change is the number one problem mankind is facing today, “so there are plenty of good signs that we have started moving in the right direction”.

“Last year emissions dropped in developed countries, despite the growing economy, so we have been to show that you can detach economic growth from emission growth. The bad news is that, in the rest of the world, emissions grew last year. So, if we want to solve this problem we have to have all the countries on board”.

Mr. Taalas added that countries still aren’t fulfilling commitments they made at the UN Paris climate conference in 2015, leaving the world currently on course for a four to five degree temperature increase by the end of this century: “there’s clearly a need for higher ambition levels if we’re serious about climate mitigation”.

Australian wildfires spark global CO2 increase

Mr. Taalas noted that 2020 has seen the warmest January recorded so far, and that winter has been “unseasonably mild” in many parts of the northern hemisphere.

Ongoing warming in Antarctica saw large-scale ice melt and the fracturing of a glacier, with repercussions for sea level rise, and carbon dioxide emissions spiked following the devastating Australian bushfires, which spread smoke and pollutants around the world.

Australia’s 2018-2019 summer was the hottest ever recorded, reaching a peak of 41.9 degrees centigrade on December 18. Australia’s seven hottest days on record, and nine of the 10 hottest, occurred in 2019.

The country was not the only place affected by extreme heat, or wildfires. Heat records were broken in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even Nordic countries saw record-breaking temperatures, including Finland, which registered a high of 33.2 degrees in the capital, Helsinki.

Several high latitude regions, including Siberia and Alaska, saw high levels of fire activity, as did some parts of the Arctic, where it was previously extremely rare. Indonesia and neighbouring countries had their the most significant fire season since 2015, and total fire activity in South America was the highest since 2010.

The widespread impacts of ocean warming

Greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow in 2019, leading to increased ocean heat, and such phenomena as rising sea levels, the altering of ocean currents, melting floating ice shelves, and dramatic changes in marine ecosystems.

The ocean has seen increased acidification and deoxygenation, with negative impacts on marine life, and the wellbeing of people who depend on ocean ecosystems. At the poles, sea ice continues to decline, and glaciers shrunk yet again, for the 32nd consecutive year.

Between 2002 and 2016, the Greenland ice sheet lost some 260 Gigatonnes of ice per year, with a peak loss of 458 Gigatonnes in 2011/12. The 2019 loss of 329 Gigatonnes, was well above average.

Unprecedented floods and droughts

In 2019, extreme weather events, some of which were unprecedented in scale, took place in many parts of the world. The monsoon season saw rainfall above the long-term average in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and flooding led to the loss of some 2,200 lives in the region.

Parts of South America were hit by floods in January, whilst Iran was badly affected in late March and early April. In the US, total economic losses from flooding were estimated at around $20 billion. Other regions suffered a severe lack of water. Australia has its driest year on record, and Southern Africa, Central America and parts of South America received abnormally low rains.

2019 also saw an above-average number of tropical cyclones, with 72 in the northern hemisphere, and 27 in the southern hemisphere. Some notably destructive cyclones were Idai, which caused widespread devastation in Mozambique and the east coast of Africa; Dorian, which hit the Bahamas and remained almost stationary for some 24 hours; and Hagibis, which caused severe flooding in Japan.

The human cost

The changing climate is exerting a toll on the health of the global population: the reports shows that in 2019, record high temperatures led to over 100 deaths in Japan, and 1,462 deaths in France. Dengue virus increased in 2019, due to higher temperatures, which have been making it easier for mosquitos to transmit the disease over several decades.

Following years of steady decline, hunger is again on the rise, driven by a changing climate and extreme weather events: over 820 million people were affected by hunger in 2018. The countries in the Horn of Africa were particularly affected in 2019, where the population suffered from climate extremes, displacement, conflict and violence. The region suffered droughts, then unusually heavy rains towards the end of the year, which was a factor in the worst locust outbreak in the past 25 years.

Worldwide, some 6.7 million people were displaced from their homes due to natural hazards – in particular storms and floods, such as the many devastating cyclones, and flooding in Iran, the Philippines and Ethiopia. The report forecasts an internal displacement figure of around 22 million people throughout the whole of 2019, up from 17.2 million in 2018.

COP26: time to aim high

“We have to aim high at the next climate conference in Glasgow in November”, said Mr. Guterres, speaking at the launch of the report at UN Headquarters in New York, on Tuesday, referring to the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), due to be held in the Scottish City in November.

The UN chief called on all countries to demonstrate that emission cuts of 45 per cent from 2010 levels are possible this decade, and that net-zero emissions will be achieved by the middle of the century.

Four priorities for COP26 were outlined by Mr. Guterres: more ambitious national climate plans that will keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels; strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050; a comprehensive programme of support for climate adaptation and resilience; and financing for a sustainable, green economy.

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Serving up sustainable food

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Along with a vow to return to exercise, upping personal intake of fruit and vegetables tops the list of New Year’s resolutions for many. But what if this year’s resolution didn’t end with the eating – and extended to reducing the amount of healthy, nutritious produce that gets trashed?

That’s a commitment that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is banking on to help achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Global estimates suggest that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. Those 1.3 billion tons of fruits, vegetables, grains and roots are lost through spillage or spoilage in the harvest-to-market chain, or to spoilage and discard once products hit retailers and, eventually, consumers.

In a world where malnutrition is a contributing factor to roughly 45% of deaths of children under age five in developing countries, and where consumption of highly processed foods is pushing obesity rates ever higher, remaining accountable to those New Year resolutions isn’t just personal – they’re critical for humanity.

They are also critical for the survival of the planet. Food production, consumption and waste – and how they impact the environment – will be a key topic of discussion at this year’s United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5), taking place online on 22-23 February 2021.

UNEP and partners are developing the world’s most comprehensive data analysis and modelling on food waste, which will be launched at the Assembly. Titled the ‘Food Waste Index’, the document will be released at UNEA-5. It offers new estimates of food waste at household, retail and food service sectors at country level, and provides a methodology that enables countries to measure and track progress on Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to halve retail and consumer food waste and reduce food loss by 2030.

Food systems for the future

Agriculture and the pressure to produce cheaper, faster commodities are among the primary drivers of biodiversity loss. Resource-intensive food production that depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and complex irrigation and energy systems means fewer wild spaces for the other creatures we share nature with, whether it’s birds, mammals, insects or microbial organisms. Meanwhile, political and economic structures are pricing farmers off their land.

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the obstacles and blockages in our global food system. We have a timely opportunity to build back better and redesign the way we grow, harvest, sell and eat the bounty of nature’s production,” said Clementine O’Connor, from UNEP’s Sustainable Food Systems Programme.

Transforming our food systems will not only help restore biodiversity and habitat but can also strengthen market opportunities for smallholder farmers – many of whom are women on the road to economic self-sufficiency through sustainable production of fruit and vegetables.

A fruitful year?

At UNEA-5, the virtual convening of representatives of UN member states, the private sector, civil society, scientists and other leaders will be an opportunity to share and adopt best practices for transforming food systems. Momentum toward sustainable food production and consumption that is generated by the Assembly will be built upon going forward in 2021, with the historic first-ever UN Food Systems Summit.

The year 2021 has also been marked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021 to highlight the role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, livelihoods, food security and health.

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2020, one of three warmest years on record

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The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only long-term crisis the world will remember from 2020. In terms of climate change, the year was also one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, the UN weather agency said on Wednesday. 

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

He pointed out that at 1.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the world is already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent.  

“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century”, he warned. “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere.”  

Powerful force 

La Niña, which began in late last year, is expected to continue into the early-middle part of 2021.   

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect”, said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.  

La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperatures are typically strongest in the second year of the event. 

“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño warming events on record”, he added. “This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature”.  

The extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña this year may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend remains to be seen.  

Following atypical patterns  

WMO pointed to sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia, diminishing Arctic sea ice and record-breaking hurricanes in the Atlantic as being among the climate events that most stood out in 2020.  

The UN weather agency also reminded that temperature is just one climate change indicator. Greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content, global mean sea level, sea ice extent and extreme events are also factors. 

Backed by science 

WMO’s consolidated global temperature update incorporates information from five leading international sets of data.  

It also uses datasets that combine millions of meteorological and marine observations, including from satellites, with models to produce a complete reanalysis of the atmosphere.  

“The combination of observations with models makes it possible to estimate temperatures at any time and in any place across the globe, even in data-sparse areas such as the polar regions”, according to WMO.  

Looking to the future  

The Paris Agreement aims to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

However, the global average temperature in 2020 had already approached the lower limit of the temperature increase that the Agreement seeks to avert.  

Moreover, there is at least a one-in-five chance that the average global temperature will temporarily exceed 1.5 °C by 2024, according to WMO’s Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update, led by the United Kingdom’s Met Office. 

The 2021 Met Office annual global temperature forecast also suggests that next year will again be one of the earth’s hottest years.  

Updating its provisional December report, WMO will issue its final publication in March, which will incorporate temperature figures, information on all leading climate indicators and selected climate impacts. 

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Step up action and adapt to ‘new climate reality’-Report

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Though countries have made progress in planning for climate change adaptation, there are significant financing shortfalls in getting them to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods and rising sea levels, a new UN environment report has found. 

According to the 2020 Adaptation Gap Report, released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as temperatures rise and climate change impacts intensify, nations must urgently step up action to adapt to the new climate reality or face serious costs, damages and losses. 

“The hard truth is that climate change is upon us,” Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings. 

“Its impacts will intensify and hit vulnerable countries and communities the hardest, even if we meet the Paris Agreement goals of holding global warming this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing 1.5 degree Celsius.” 

Global commitment needed 

Annual adaptation costs in developing countries are estimated at $70 billion, but the figure could reach up to $300 billion in 2030, and $500 billion in 2050. Almost three-quarters of nations have some adaptation plans in place, but financing and implementation fall “far short” of what is needed, according to the UNEP report. 

Stepping up public and private finance for adaptation is, therefore, urgently needed. 

“As the Secretary-General has said, we need a global commitment to put half of all global climate finance towards adaptation in the next year … this will allow a huge step up in adaptation, in everything from early warning systems to resilient water resources to nature-based solutions,” Ms. Andersen added. 

Adaptation is a key pillar of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It aims to reduce countries’ and communities’ vulnerability to climate change by increasing their ability to absorb impacts.  

Nature-based solutions 

The UNEP report also underscored the importance of nature-based solutions as low-cost options that reduce climate risks, restore and protect biodiversity, and bring benefits for communities and economies. 

Its analysis of four major climate and development funds: the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Adaptation Fund, and the International Climate Initiative (IKI), suggested that support for green initiatives with some element of nature-based solutions has risen over the last two decades.  

Cumulative investment for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects under the four funds stands at $94 billion. However, only $12 billion was spent on nature-based solutions, a tiny fraction of total adaptation and conservation finance, it added. 

Cutting emissions will reduce costs 

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will reduce the impacts and costs associated with climate change, according to the report. Achieving the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement could limit losses in annual growth to up to 1.6 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for the 3 degrees Celsius trajectory. 

UNEP urged all nations to pursue the efforts outlined in its December 2020 Emissions Gap Report, which called for a green pandemic recovery and updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that include new net-zero commitments.  

“However, the world must also plan for, finance and implement climate change adaptation to support those nations least responsible for climate change but most at risk,” the UN agency added. 

“While the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to hit the ability of countries to adapt to climate change, investing in adaptation is a sound economic decision,” it said. 

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