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United in Science report: Climate change has not stopped for COVID19

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Climate change has not stopped for COVID19. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record levels and continue to increase. Emissions are heading in the direction of pre-pandemic levels following a temporary decline caused by the lockdown and economic slowdown. The world is set to see its warmest five years on record – in a trend which is likely to continue – and is not on track to meet agreed targets to keep global temperature increase well below 2 °C or at 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

This is according to a new multi-agency report from leading science organizations, United in Science 2020. It highlights the increasing and irreversible impacts of climate change, which affects glaciers, oceans, nature, economies and human living conditions and is often felt through water-related hazards like drought or flooding. It also documents how COVID-19 has impeded our ability to monitor these changes through the global observing system.

“This has been an unprecedented year for people and planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide. At the same time, the heating of our planet and climate disruption has continued apace,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a foreword.

“Never before has it been so clear that we need long-term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development. We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future,” said Mr Guterres, who will present the report on 9 September. “We need science, solidarity and solutions.”

The United in Science 2020 report, the second in a series, is coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with input from the Global Carbon Project, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme and the UK Met Office. It presents the very latest scientific data and findings related to climate change to inform global policy and action.

“Greenhouse gas concentrations – which are already at their highest levels in 3 million years – have continued to rise. Meanwhile, large swathes of Siberia have seen a prolonged and remarkable heatwave during the first half of 2020, which would have been very unlikely without anthropogenic climate change. And now 2016–2020 is set to be the warmest five-year period on record. This report shows that whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated,” said WMO Secretary-General, Professor Petteri Taalas.

Key findings

Greenhouse Gas Concentrations in the Atmosphere (World Meteorological Organization)

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations showed no signs of peaking and have continued to increase to new records. Benchmark stations in the WMO Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network reported CO2 concentrations above 410 parts per million (ppm) during the first half of 2020, with Mauna Loa (Hawaii) and Cape Grim (Tasmania) at 414.38 ppm and 410.04 ppm, respectively, in July 2020, up from 411.74 ppm and 407.83 ppm in July 2019.

Reductions in emissions of CO2 in 2020 will only slightly impact the rate of increase in the atmospheric concentrations, which are the result of past and current emissions, as well as the very long lifetime of CO2.   Sustained reductions in emissions to net zero are necessary to stabilize climate change.

Global Fossil CO2emissions (Global Carbon Project)

CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by an estimated 4% to 7% in 2020 due to COVID-19 confinement policies. The exact decline will depend on the continued trajectory of the pandemic and government responses to address it.

During peak lockdown in early April 2020, the daily global fossil CO2 emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17% compared to 2019. Even so, emissions were still equivalent to 2006 levels, highlighting both the steep growth over the past 15 years and the continued dependence on fossil sources for energy.

By early June 2020, global daily fossil CO2 emissions had mostly returned to within 5% (1%–8% range) below 2019 levels, which reached a new record of 36.7 Gigatonnes (Gt) last year, 2% higher than at the start of climate change negotiations in 1990.

Global methane emissions from human activities have continued to increase over the past decade. Current emissions of both CO2 and methane are not compatible with emissions pathways consistent with the targets of the Paris Agreement.

Emissions Gap (UN Environment Programme)

Transformational action can no longer be postponed if the Paris Agreement targets are to be met.

The Emissions Gap Report 2019 showed that the cuts in global emissions required per year from 2020 to 2030 are close to 3% for a 2 °C target and more than 7% per year on average for the 1.5 °C goal of the Paris Agreement.

The Emissions Gap in 2030 is estimated at 12-15 Gigatonnes (Gt) CO2e to limit global warming to below 2 °C. For the 1.5 ° C goal, the gap is estimated at 29-32 Gt CO2e, roughly equivalent to the combined emissions of the six largest emitters.

It is still possible to bridge the emissions gap, but this will require urgent and concerted action by all countries and across all sectors. A substantial part of the short-term potential can be realized through scaling up existing, well-proven policies, for instance on renewables and energy efficiency, low carbon transportation means and a phase out of coal.

Looking beyond the 2030 timeframe, new technological solutions and gradual change in consumption patterns are needed at all levels. Both technically and economically feasible solutions already exist.

State of Global Climate (WMO and UK’s Met Office)

The average global temperature for 2016–2020 is expected to be the warmest on record, about 1.1 °C above 1850-1900, a reference period for temperature change since pre-industrial times and 0.24°C warmer than the global average temperature for 2011-2015.

In the five-year period 2020–2024, the chance of at least one year exceeding 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels is 24%, with a very small chance (3%) of the five-year mean exceeding this level. It is likely (~70% chance) that one or more months during the next five years will be at least 1.5 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels.

In every year between 2016 and 2020, Arctic sea ice extent has been below average. 2016–2019 recorded a greater glacier mass loss than all other past five-year periods since 1950. The rate of global mean sea-level rise increased between 2011–2015 and 2016–2020.

Major impacts have been caused by extreme weather and climate events. A clear fingerprint of human-induced climate change has been identified on many of these extreme events.

The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

Human-induced climate change is affecting life-sustaining systems, from the top of the mountains to the depths of the oceans, leading to accelerating sea-level rise, with cascading effects for ecosystems and human security.

This increasingly challenges adaptation and integrated risk management responses.

Ice sheets and glaciers worldwide have lost mass. Between 1979 and 2018, Arctic sea-ice extent has decreased for all months of the year. Increasing wildfire and abrupt permafrost thaw, as well as changes in Arctic and mountain hydrology, have altered the frequency and intensity of ecosystem disturbances.

The global ocean has warmed unabated since 1970 and has taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system. Since 1993 the rate of ocean warming, and thus heat uptake has more than doubled. Marine heatwaves have doubled in frequency and have become longer-lasting, more intense and more extensive, resulting in large-scale coral bleaching events. The ocean has absorbed between 20% to 30% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions since the 1980s causing further ocean acidification.

Since about 1950 many marine species have undergone shifts in geographical range and seasonal activities in response to ocean warming, sea-ice change and oxygen loss.

Global mean sea-level is rising, with acceleration in recent decades due to increasing rates of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, as well as continued glacier mass loss and ocean thermal expansion. The rate of global mean sea-level rise for 2006–2015 of 3.6 ±0.5 mm/yr is unprecedented over the last century

Climate and Water Resources (WMO)

Climate change impacts are most felt through changing hydrological conditions including changes in snow and ice dynamics.

By 2050, the number of people at risk of floods will increase from its current level of 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion. In the early to mid-2010s, 1.9 billion people, or 27% of the global population, lived in potential severely water-scarce areas. In 2050, this number will increase to 2.7 to 3.2 billion people.

As of 2019, 12% of the world population drinks water from unimproved and unsafe sources. More than 30% of the world population, or 2.4 billion people, live without any form of sanitation.

Climate change is projected to increase the number of water-stressed regions and exacerbate shortages in already water-stressed regions.

The cryosphere is an important source of freshwater in mountains and their downstream regions. There is high confidence that annual runoff from glaciers will reach peak globally at the latest by the end of the 21st century. After that, glacier runoff is projected to decline globally with implications for water storage.

It is estimated that Central Europe and Caucasus have reached peak water now, and that the Tibetan Plateau region will reach peak water between 2030 and 2050. As runoff from snow cover, permafrost and glaciers in this region provides up to 45% of the total river flow, the flow decrease would affect water availability for 1.7 billion people.

Earth System Observations during COVID-19 (Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and WMO)

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced significant impacts on the global observing systems, which in turn have affected the quality of forecasts and other weather, climate and ocean-related services.

The reduction of aircraft-based observations by an average of 75% to 80% in March and April degraded the forecast skills of weather models. Since June, there has been only a slight recovery. Observations at manually operated weather stations, especially in Africa and South America, have also been badly disrupted.

For hydrological observations like river discharge, the situation is similar to that of atmospheric in situ measurements. Automated systems continue to deliver data whereas gauging stations that depend on manual reading are affected.

In March 2020, nearly all oceanographic research vessels were recalled to home ports. Commercial ships have been unable to contribute vital ocean and weather observations, and ocean buoys and other systems could not be maintained. Four full-depth ocean surveys of variables such as carbon, temperature, salinity, and water alkalinity, completed only once per decade, have been cancelled. Surface carbon measurements from ships, which tell us about the evolution of greenhouse gases, also effectively ceased.

The impacts on climate change monitoring are long-term. They are likely to prevent or restrict measurement campaigns for the mass balance of glaciers or the thickness of permafrost, usually conducted at the end of the thawing period. The overall disruption of observations will introduce gaps in the historical time series of Essential Climate Variables needed to monitor climate variability and change and associated impacts.

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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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Guterres: COVID-19 recovery offers ‘chance to change course’

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The process of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic offers the chance to change course, and put humanity on a path on which it is not in conflict with nature, the United Nations Secretary-General said on Monday, urging greater efforts by everyone to protect biodiversity and step up climate action. 

Addressing world leaders at the One Planet Summit, Secretary-General António Guterres outlined the consequences of abusing Earth and its resources. 

“We have been poisoning air, land and water – and filling oceans with plastics. Now, nature is striking back: temperatures are reaching record highs, biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, [and] fires, floods and hurricanes are more frequent and extreme,” he said. 

“We are extremely fragile”, Mr. Guterres warned. 

Combined with the devastating effects of COVID-19 and its socio-economic fallout, the UN chief reminded everyone that “as we rebuild, we cannot revert to the old normal.”  

“Pandemic recovery is our chance to change course. With smart policies and the right investments, we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity”, he highlighted. 

‘Everyone must do much more’ 

The Secretary-General noted that innovations and nature-based solutions are especially promising, and that preserving biodiversity also creates jobs. According to the World Economic Forum, emerging business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030, he added. 

At the same time, with a financing gap of $711 billion per year until 2030 to meet global biodiversity targets, increased and sustained financing will be crucial to transition away from polluting sectors, Mr. Guterres said. 

“The time has come to…align public and private financial flows with the Paris Agreement commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal decisions.” 

The UN chief also urged support for the most vulnerable, who are already suffering the effects of climate change, such as the least developed countries and small island developing States. 

‘The sign of hope’ 

“Everyone must do much more … We begin a new year under the sign of hope. Together, let us seize the opportunity to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world,” he added. 

Organized by the French Government in partnership with the United Nations and the World Bank, the One Planet Summit brought together world leaders to commit action to protect and restore bio-diversity. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the event was largely virtual.  

Opening the Summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, declared that protecting and restoring biodiversity is “in our interest”. 

Alongside creating millions of jobs between now and 2030, the natural world offers many benefits, he said, adding that intact forests and ocean ecosystems can help meet climate targets by acting as carbon sinks. 

‘Nature offers solutions’ 

“Nature offers solutions for developing sustainable agriculture, for economic and financial services, helping us to preserve our heritages and cultures”, said the French President.  

Mr. Macron outlined four key priorities for action: protecting terrestrial and maritime ecosystems, to allow nature to regenerate; promoting agro ecology to safeguard environment, strengthen food-security and reduce inequalities; mobilizing public and private financing, which would support both climate action and protect biodiversity; and reducing deforestation, especially tropical forests, to protect species and human health. 

African greening initiative receives $14 billion 

Also on Monday, the Great Green Wall for the Sahel and Sahara, an initiative to combat desertification in the vast region, received a pledge of more than $14.2 billion in new funding over the next 10 years, to restore degrading land, protect biodiversity and strengthen resilience. 

According to the UN Convention on Combating Desertification Secretariat (UNCCD), overall, about $33 billion needed by the initiative to achieve its ambitious targets to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, the soil capture of around 250 million tons of atmospheric carbon, and creation of some 10 million green jobs for communities, by 2030. 

Mohamed Cheikh El-Ghazouani, President of Mauritania and the Chair of Conference of Heads of State and Government of the Pan African Agency for the Green Great Wall, welcomed the announcement.  

“The mobilization of this additional funding through an innovative approach will certainly contribute to the achievement of the Great Green Wall goals”, he said. 

Since its inception in 2007, the country-led Great Green Wall programme has planted billions of trees and supported tens of thousands of local households. Its path snakes along the southern margin of Africa’s Sahara Desert running from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea. 

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