Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are at record levels, and emissions that saw a temporary decline due to the pandemic are heading towards pre-COVID levels, while global temperatures continue to hit new highs, according to a major new UN report.
United in Science 2020, released on Wednesday, highlights the increasing and irreversible impacts of climate change on glaciers, oceans, nature, economies and it’s cost on people across the globe; manifest more and more often through disasters such as record heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and floods.
Speaking at the launch of the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that there is “no time to delay” if the world is to slow the trend of the devastating impacts of climate change, and limit temperate rise to 1.5 degree-Celsius.
“Whether we are tackling a pandemic or the climate crisis, it is clear that we need science, solidarity and decisive solutions,” said Mr. Guterres.
“We have a choice: business as usual, leading to further calamity; or we can use the recovery from COVID-19 to provide a real opportunity to put the world on a sustainable path,” he added.
The Secretary-General outlined six climate-related actions to shape the recovery from COVD-19, to ensure a sustainable future for coming generations.
The six actions include: delivering new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition; making public bailouts contingent upon green jobs and sustainable growth; shifting away from grey and towards green economy, making societies and people more resilient; channelling public fund investments into sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and the climate; factoring in climate risks and opportunities into the financial system as well as in public policymaking and infrastructure; and lastly – working together as an international community.
“As we work to tackle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, I urge leaders to heed the facts in this report, unite behind the science and take urgent climate action,” added Mr. Guterres, urging governments to prepare new and ambitious national climate plans, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), in advance of COP26.
“That is how we will build a safer, more sustainable future.”
Climate change continues unabated
In one of its key findings, the report states that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations showed “no signs of peaking” and continued to increase to new records.
Benchmark stations in the WMO Global Atmosphere Watch 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 the same month last year.
“Greenhouse gas concentrations – which are already at their highest levels in 3 million years – have continued to rise,” said Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), in the foreword to the report.
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, he continued.
“Whilst many aspects of our lives have been disrupted in 2020, climate change has continued unabated,” added Mr. Taalas.
According to the report, CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by an estimated 4 to 7 per cent 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.
In April 2020, at the height of COVID-related lockdowns, daily global fossil CO2 emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17 per cent compared to the year prior. However, by early June, the emissions had mostly returned to within 5 per cent below 2019 levels.
It notes that though the emissions gap – the difference between what we need to do and what we are actually doing to tackle climate change – is wide, it can still be bridged with urgent and concerted action by all countries and across all sectors.
On the state of the global climate, the report indicates that the average global temperature for 2016-2020 is expected to be the warmest on record, about 1.1 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 (a reference period for temperature change since pre-industrial times) and 0.24 degree Celsius warmer than the global average temperature for 2011-2015.
Impact of COVID-19 on Earth system observations
The report also documents how the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded the ability to monitor changes in climate through the global observing system, which in turn has affected the quality of forecasts and other weather, climate and ocean-related services.
Aircraft-based observations have seen major reductions, manual measurements at weather stations and of rivers have been badly affected and nearly all oceanographic research vessels are in ports, owing to direct or secondary impact of the pandemic.
The impacts on climate change monitoring are long-term, according to the report. 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 United in Science 2020 report, the second in a series, is coordinated by the UN 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 (UNEP) and the UK Met Office.
The report brings together the latest climate science related updates from a group of key global partner organizations. It presents the very latest scientific data and findings related to climate change to inform global policy and action.