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‘Tipping point’ for climate action: Time’s running out to avoid catastrophic heating

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The temporary reduction in carbon emissions caused by global COVID-19 lockdowns did not slow the relentless advance of climate change. Greenhouse gas concentrations are at record levels, and the planet is on path towards dangerous overheating, a multi-agency climate report published on Thursday warns. 

According to the landmark United in Science 2021, there “is no sign of growing back greener”, as carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly accelerating, after a temporary blip in 2020 due to COVID, and nowhere close to the targets set by the Paris Agreement.

 “We have reached a tipping point on the need for climate action. The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted”, UN Secretary General António Guterres underscored in a video message. “This report shows just how far off course we are”, he added.

A world in danger

According to scientists, the rising global temperatures are already fueling devastating extreme weather events around the world, with escalating impacts on economies and societies. For example, billions of working hours have been lost due to excessive heat.

“We now have five times the number of recorded weather disasters than we had in 1970 and they are seven times more costly. Even the most developed countries have become vulnerable”, said the UN chief.

Mr. Guterres cited how Hurricane Ida recently cut power to over a million people in New Orleans, and New York City was paralysed by record-breaking rain that killed at least 50 people in the region.

“These events would have been impossible without human-caused climate change. Costly fires, floods and extreme weather events are increasing everywhere. These changes are just the beginning of worse to come”, he warned.

A bleak future

The report echoes some of the data and warnings from experts in the last year: the average global temperature for the past five years was among the highest on record, and there is an increasing likelihood that temperatures will temporarily breach the threshold of 1.5° Celsius above the pre-industrial era, in the next five years.

The picture painted by United in Science is bleak: even with ambitious action to slow greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will continue to rise and threaten low-lying islands and coastal populations throughout the world.

“We really are out of time. We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage. COP26 this November must mark that turning point. By then we need all countries to commit to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of this century and to present clear, credible long-term strategies to get there”, urged the UN chief.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is scheduled to be held in the city of Glasgow, Scotland between 31 October and 12 November 2021. The pivotal meeting is expected to set the course of climate action for the next decade.

We must urgently secure a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience, so that vulnerable communities can manage these growing (climate) risks…I expect all these issues to be addressed and resolved at COP26. Our future is at stake”, Mr. Guterres emphasized.

“We are not yet on track towards the Paris 1.5 to 2 degrees’ limit, although positive things have started to happen and the political interest to mitigate climate change is clearly growing but to be successful in this effort, we have to start acting now. We cannot wait for decades to act, we have to start acting already in this decade”, added Prof. Petteri Taalas, World Meteorological Organization’s secretary general.

The report also cites the conclusions of the most recent IPCC report: the scale of recent changes across the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years, and it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

Notable findings

Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2 O) continued to increase in 2020 and the first half of 2021.

According to WMO, reducing atmospheric methane (CH4) in the short term, could support the pledges of 193 Member States made in Paris. This measure does not reduce the need for strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, the UN Environment Program (UNEP), warns that five years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the emissions gap (the difference between where emissions are heading and where science indicate they should be in 2030) is as large as ever.

Although the increasing number of countries committing to net-zero emission goals is encouraging, to remain feasible and credible, these goals urgently need to be reflected in near-term policy and in significantly more ambitious actions, the agency highlights.

“Last year, we estimated that there was 5.6 per cent drop in emissions and since the lifetime of carbon dioxide is so long, this one year anomaly in emissions doesn’t change the big picture. We saw some improvements in air quality, these short-lived gases, which are affecting air quality. We saw positive evolution there. But now we have returned more or less back to the 2019 emission levels”, further explained the WMO chief.

A warmer future

The report explains that the annual global average temperature is likely to be at least 1 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels (defined as the 1850–1900 average) in each of the coming five years and is very likely to be within the range of 0.9 °C to 1.8 °C.

There is also a 40% chance that the average temperature in one of the next five years, will be at least 1.5 °C warmer than pre-industrial levels. However, it is very unlikely that the 5-year average temperature for 2021–2025 will pass the 1.5 °C threshold.

High latitude regions, and the Sahel, are likely to be wetter in the next five years, the report also warns.

Sea level rise is inevitable

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the Antarctic glacier, where we have the biggest mass of ice worldwide and in the worst case, we could see up to two meters of sea level rise by the end of this century if the melting of the Antarctic glacier happens in a speedier manner”, cautioned Prof. Taalas.

Global sea levels rose 20 cm from 1900 to 2018, and at an accelerated rate from 2006 to 2018.

Even if emissions are reduced to limit warming to well below 2 °C, the global average sea level would likely rise by 0.3–0.6 m by 2100 and could rise 0.3–3.1 m by 2300.

Adaptation to the rise will be essential, especially along low-lying coasts, small islands, deltas and coastal cities, explains WMO.

World’s health also at risk

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that rising temperatures are linked to increased heat-related mortality and work impairment, with an excess of 103 billion potential work hours lost globally in 2019 compared with those lost in 2000.

Moreover, COVID-19 infections and climate hazards such as heatwaves, wildfires and poor air quality, combine to threaten human health worldwide, putting vulnerable populations at particular risk.

According to the UN health agency, the COVID-19 recovery efforts should be aligned with national climate change and air quality strategies to reduce risks from cascading climate hazards, and gain health co-benefits.

“We had this temperature anomaly in western Canada and the United States, where we were up to 15 degrees warmer temperatures than normally. And that led to a record breaking, forest fires and major health problems, especially amongst elderly people”, highlighted WMO Secretary General.

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Environment

Climate change: For 25th year in a row, Greenland ice sheet shrinks

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2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the key Greenland ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season, than it gained during the winter, according to a new UN-endorsed report issued on Friday. 

The data from the Danish Arctic monitoring service Polar Portal – which forms part of the UN weather agency WMO’s annual State of the Climate report – shows that early summer was cold and wet, with unusually heavy and late snowfall in June, which delayed the onset of the melting season. 

After that, however, a heatwave at the end of July, led to a considerable loss of ice. 

In terms of “total mass balance” (the sum of surface melting and loss of ice chunks from icebergs, in addition to the melting of glacier “tongues” in contact with seawater), the ice sheet lost around 166 billion tonnes during the 12-month period ending in August 2021. 

Climate change 

These numbers mean the ice sheet ended the season with a net surface mass balance of approximately 396 billion tonnes, making it the 28th lowest level recorded, in the 41-year time series.  

This could be considered an average year, but Polar Report notes how perspectives have changed, due to rapidly advancing climate change. 

At the end of the 1990s, for example, these same figures would have been regarded as a year with a very low surface mass balance. 

The report also notes that the cause of the early summer chill, could be due to conditions over southwest Canada and the northwest United States. 

In these territories, an enormous “blocking” high pressure system was formed, shaped like the Greek capital letter Omega (Ω). 

This flow pattern occurs regularly in the troposphere, and not just over North America, but it had never been observed with such strength before. 

According to the report, an analysis by World Weather Attribution demonstrated that it could only be explained as a result of atmospheric warming caused by human activity. 

Notable year 

According to the report, 2021 was notable for several reasons. 

It was the year in which precipitation at Summit Station, which is located at the top of the ice sheet at an altitude of 3,200 metres above sea level, was registered in the form of rain. 

The year also saw an acceleration of the loss of ice at the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, where the rate of loss had otherwise been stagnant for several years. 

Winter snowfall was also close to average for the period between 1981 and 2010, which was good news, because a combination of low winter snowfall and a warm summer can result in very large losses of ice, as was the case in 2019. 

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Environment

2022: Emergency mode for the environment

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As the new year gets underway, the world continues to grapple with a number of familiar challenges – the continued COVID-19 pandemic, resurgent wildfires, enduring crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Yet, 2022 could prove to be a seminal year for the environment, with high-level events and conferences scheduled, which are hoped to re-energize international cooperation and collective action.

The coming year will also mark two golden jubilees. In 1972, the world took up the environmental mantle at the historic UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The meeting firmly placed the environment on the priority list of governments, civil society, businesses and policymakers, recognizing the inextricable links between the planet, human well-being and economic growth. Now, fifty years later, the Stockholm+50 meeting in June 2022 will commemorate the event, reflect upon half a century of global environmental action and look forward.

The Stockholm Conference also birthed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN entity mandated to monitor the state of the environment, inform policymaking with science and galvanize action. For fifty years since, UNEP has used its convening power and rigorous scientific research to coordinate a global effort to tackle environmental challenges. A series of activities will mark UNEP’s 50th anniversary this year.

UNEP is going into 2022 with a new “Medium-Term Strategy” featuring seven interlinked subprogrammes for action: Climate Action, Chemicals and Pollutions Action, Nature Action, Science Policy, Environmental Governance, Finance and Economic Transformations and Digital Transformations. The strategy was agreed at 2021’s fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly; the resumed session, known as UNEA 5.2 will take place in February 2022. Under the overarching theme of ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals’, discussions will highlight the pivotal role of nature in social, economic and environmental sustainable development.

June will be a busy month on the environmental calendar. On the 5th, the world will come together to celebrate World Environment Day. Led by UNEP and held annually since 1974, the day has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental outreach, with millions of people engaging to protect the planet. This year’s event will be hosted by Sweden, under the campaign slogan “Only One Earth“, with a focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature.  

While this timeline of environmental achievements is proof of what can be achieved through multilateral action, the science remains irrefutable. Unsustainable patterns of consumption and production are fuelling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that the triple crisis is humanity’s number one existential threat.

Several global events in 2022 aim to encourage dialogue and influence policy decisions to address the triple crisis. These include a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, which will be adopted in May at COP 15, and could stave off the extinction of over one million species, and the UN Ocean Conference in July, which seeks to protect one of our most vital ecosystems. A detailed list of related events is available on the UN web site.

Last year, the UN Secretary-General reminded the world that “We are at a crossroads, with consequential choices before us. It can go either way: breakdown or breakthrough.”

Experts hope that 2022 will be a year of breakthroughs for the environment.

UNEP

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With decent work and a sustainable model aquaculture could feed the world

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Harnessing aquaculture’s potential to effectively contribute to feeding the world’s growing population in the decades to come will require concerted efforts to promote sustainable enterprises and decent work for its workforce.

These are among the main conclusions of the Technical meeting on the future of work in aquaculture in the context of the rural economy  (13-17 December 2021) that brought together representatives from governments, employers and workers at the ILO to discuss the decent work challenges and opportunities in the aquaculture sector.

In recent decades aquaculture has made important contributions to reducing poverty and hunger in many impoverished rural communities. It remains an important source of livelihoods and food for many rural workers today. At least 20.5 million people work in primary aquaculture production. Many more are engaged along the aquaculture supply chain.

With a growing world population and environmental pressures, aquaculture is increasingly recognized as holding potential for sustainably addressing challenges of food and nutritional security. In a number of developing countries there is also growing appreciation of its role in enterprise development, job creation and livelihood diversification, especially for the rural poor. In order to promote the sustainability and growth of the aquaculture sector and harness its potential to advance sustainable development, inclusive growth and decent work, there needs to be a stronger focus on addressing employment and labour challenges facing the sector.

“If we are to ensure that the aquaculture industry will contribute to inclusive growth and decent work opportunities for more women and men we must create a level playing field and an enabling environment for sustainable production and for workers to enjoy their rights at work,” said Magnús Magnússon Norɖdahl, Chairperson of the meeting.

“Sustainable and inclusive growth in the aquaculture industry could further be beneficial in terms of increasing income and livelihoods for many rural communities, both coastal and inland, and in this process, also contribute to governments’ efforts in alleviating rural poverty,” added Fatih Acar, Government group Vice-Chairperson.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic  has been felt by both businesses and workers in the sector. Workers, especially in processing, have been at heightened risk of exposure to the virus, with the long working hours in close quarters and low temperatures. Businesses have struggled to remain viable, which has been reflected in reduced working hours or lay-offs, impacting the livelihood of workers and their families. The lessons learnt from the crisis should encourage reforms towards more sustainable and resilient aquaculture and food systems more generally.

“The current pandemic has exacerbated decent work deficits in the sector. But many of these deficits had existed long before its outbreak” said Krisjan Bragason, Workers’ group Vice-Chairperson. “Social dialogue, based on the respect of freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, is the key to finding solutions that work for all.”

“Coherent policy frameworks should be created that focus on sustainable enterprise development and productivity improvements, the promotion of inclusive labour markets, skills development and adequate social dialogue mechanisms which involve Employers’ federations. All these elements will drive and enable the future growth of the sector,” said Employers’ group Vice-Chair, Henrik Munthe.

The meeting adopted conclusions that will assist governments, workers and employers to take measures to tap the potential of the sector to support full and productive employment and decent work for all, so contributing to food and nutrition security and making sure that no one is left behind.

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