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Climate change: Proof in numbers

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Photo by UNEP

UNEP’s novel ‘World Environment Situation Room’ provides real-time data on PM2.5 levels across the planet, informing scientists, policy-makers and citizens alike.

Last month, as wildfires continued to rage across the American West, Pascal Peduzzi, a climate scientist with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Geneva, followed the situation with air quality in Mammoth Lakes, a town high in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

On Wednesday 23 September on the town’s Ranch Road the PM2.5 measurement – the tally of airborne particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres – reached 501mg per cubic metre (µg/m3) of air. That is over 50 times the threshold that the World Health Organisation (WHO) considers safe for the average PM2.5 reading over one year. It is more than 20 times the level considered safe for a 24-hour period.

“I’ve never seen it that high,” Peduzzi stated.

The scientist was not in California, nor in the US. He was in Switzerland, over 9,000km away. Nonetheless, he, and anyone with an internet connection, can now follow in detail PM2.5 levels in the West Coast fire zone, and across the planet, via UNEP’s World Environment Situation Room (WESR). This online portal offers a near-real-time monitor of global air quality.

“The intention of this platform was to connect to people,” said Sean Khan, an expert on air pollution with UNEP in Nairobi. “It was designed to inspire and stimulate action, whether that’s communities trying to convince policymakers to do things or vice versa.”

In August, following record-breaking high temperatures, lightning strikes from severe thunderstorms ignited fires in California, Oregon and Washington. By the end of September, these blazes had consumed over 2 million hectares of land across the three states. They had destroyed over 7,000 structures and left at least 40 people dead.

“We now currently have five active fires that are five of the most destructive fires in the history of the state,” Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, said on 11 September, standing in smoky air among scorched trees.

The fires threw fine particulate matter into the atmosphere. Alongside producing the extraordinary orange skies seen in television reports, studies have linked elevated PM2.5 levels with a range of health problems. These include asthma, respiratory inflammation, jeopardised lung function and even cancer.

One study conducted for seven years (from 2000 to 2007) in the US indicated that average life span extends by 0.35 years for every 10 µg/m3 decrease in PM2.5. Another, which tracked 1.2 million American adults for 26 years from 1982 to 2008, found that the mortality of lung cancer increased by 15–27% when PM2.5 air concentrations increased by 10 µg/m3

“If you are someone with pulmonary complications, then you are vulnerable, you’ll be at risk,” Khan said. The WESR Air Portal includes a mobile app which offers weekly and daily hyperlocal forecasts in addition to user customised alerts for PM2.5.

In the last 20 years, California experienced more years of drought – as classified on the US Drought Monitor’s (USDM) five-point scale – than it did without drought. The USDM gradings range from D0 – an area experiencing short-term dryness – up to D4, an area experiencing “exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses, fire risk, and water shortages that result in water emergencies.”

There were droughts between 2001 and 2005, 2007 and 2010, and from 2012 to 2017. These became more intense over time. The most severe period, between January 2014 and January 2017, led to a severe water deficit in both the soil and underground aquifers.

“It’s definitely a shift in climate, it’s no longer a 10%, extreme event,” Pascal Peduzzi said. The changing climate also creates loop effects; warmer temperatures generate more evaporation, drying out soils and vegetation, in turn leaving them more susceptible to fire. The fires themselves, meanwhile, add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, alongside particulates, further contributing to climate change.  

“If you have dry soils, and basically no precipitation, put a bit more wind on that and someone lighting a barbecue, and that’s it,” Peduzzi added. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”  

The WESR platform is a collaboration between the UN and Swiss firm IQAir, which operates its own air quality monitoring platform.

At maximum zoom-out, it shows a map of the planet, with arrows depicting wind patterns and air quality in particular areas represented by a shading system; green is good, yellow moderate, orange is unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Red represents unhealthy conditions, while two shades of purple show very unhealthy and hazardous levels. Last Friday, 5,185,211,024 people, or 66.4% of the world’s population, were exposed to polluted air worse than WHO recommended limits. That figure updates every four hours.

Zoom in and you come to circles containing numbers, at first average PM2.5 readings across a region and then down to individual sensors like that on Ranch Road in Mammoth Lakes. Flame icons show burning fires. By Friday the PM2.5 tally on Ranch Road had fallen to 32.8 µg/m3

However, a mobile monitoring station in Pollock Pines, further north in the Sierra Nevada, was registering 706.4 µg/m3. The US wildfire season is not over yet.

UN Environment

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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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