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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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‘No time to lose’ curbing greenhouse gases

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Last year, heat-trapping greenhouse gases reached a new record, surging above the planet’s 2011-2020 average, and has continued in 2021, according to a new report published on Monday by the UN weather agency.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a “stark, scientific message” for climate change negotiations at the upcoming UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, said Petteri Taalas, head of the UN agency.

“At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, he explained. “We are way off track.”

Emissions rising

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020 was 149 per cent above the pre-industrial level; methane, 262 per cent; and nitrous oxide, 123 per cent, compared to the point when human activitity began to be a destabilizing factor.

And although the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown sparked a temporary decline in new emissions, it has had no discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases or their growth rates.

As emissions continue, so too will rising global temperatures, the report maintained.

Moreover, given the long life of CO2, the current temperature level will persist for decades, even if emissions are rapidly reduced to net zero.

From intense heat and rainfall to sea-level rise and ocean acidification, rising temperatures will be accompanied by more weather extremes – all with far-reaching socioeconomic impacts.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now”, stated the WMO chief. “But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then”, he reminded.

Lingering CO2

Roughly half of today’s human-emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by oceans and land ecosystems, the Bulletin flagged.

At the same time, the capacity of land ecosystems and oceans to absorb emissions may become a less effective buffer against temperature increases in the future.

Meanwhile, many countries are currently setting carbon neutral targets amidst the hope that COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments.

“We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact of the gases that drive climate change. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life”, said the WMO official. 

The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible“, he assured. “There is no time to lose”.

Battling emissions

CO2 is the single most important greenhouse gas and has “major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren”, argued the WMO chief.

Carbon sinks are vital regulators of climate change because they remove one-quarter of the CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.

Nitrous Oxide is both a powerful greenhouse gas and ozone depleting chemical that is emitted into the atmosphere from both natural and anthropogenic sources, including oceans, soils, biomass burning, fertilizer use and various industrial processes.

Multiple co-benefits of reducing methane, whose gas remains in the atmosphere for about a decade, could support the Paris Agreement and help to reach many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the Bulletin.

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Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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