20.04.2021 |

UN report reveals “relentless, continuing climate change”

Dry soil (Photo: CC0)

Global temperatures continue to rise, with 2020 being one of the three warmest years on record. Extreme weather events combine with the COVID-19 pandemic in a double blow for millions of people, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In a report released on April 19th, the UN organization warns that the pandemic-related economic slowdown last year failed to put a brake on climate change drivers and accelerating impacts. “All key climate indicators and associated impact information provided in this report highlight relentless, continuing climate change, an increasing occurrence and intensification of extreme events, and severe losses and damage, affecting people, societies and economies,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. “The negative trend in climate will continue for the coming decades independent of our success in mitigation,” he added.

The report on the State of the Global Climate 2020, compiled by the WMO together with an extensive network of organisations and research institutions, shows that the global average temperature was about 1.2° Celsius above the pre-industrial level. The six years since 2015 have been the warmest years on record. The concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. The global average for carbon dioxide concentrations has already exceeded 410 parts per million (ppm) and could reach or exceed 414 ppm in 2021. Furthermore, 2019 saw the highest ocean heat content on record. The rate of ocean warming over the past decade was higher than the long-term average, indicating a continued uptake of heat trapped by greenhouse gases. WMO also noted that the trend in sea-level rise is accelerating due to the increased melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Overall, global mean sea level continued to increase in 2020. In total, around 152 Gt of ice were lost from the Greenland ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020. A loss of 200 Gt of ice per year corresponds to about twice the annual discharge of the river Rhine.

The report also gives information on the most acute impacts and extreme weather events in 2020. Hurricanes, extreme heatwaves, severe droughts and wildfires led to tens of billions of US dollars in economic losses and many deaths. Heavy rain and flooding affected much of the Sahel and the Greater Horn of Africa, triggering a desert locust outbreak. Severe drought affected many parts of the interior of South America in 2020, with the worst-affected areas being northern Argentina, Paraguay and the western border areas of Brazil. The estimated agricultural losses were estimated at US$ 3 billion in Brazil alone. Long-term drought also continued to persist in parts of southern Africa, especially the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa. Extreme heat and fires were another problem last year. In a large region of the Siberian Arctic, temperatures in 2020 were more than 3°C above average. This led to prolonged and widespread wildfires. In the US, the largest fires ever recorded occurred in late summer and autumn. Australia also broke heat records in early 2020.

The WMO report highlights that COVID-19 worsened the situation for many people worldwide. More than 50 million people were doubly hit in 2020 by climate-related disasters (floods, droughts and storms) and by the pandemic. Mobility restrictions, economic downturns and disruptions to the agricultural sector exacerbated the effects of extreme weather and climate events along the entire food supply chain. Local, national and global supply chains were disrupted, compromising access to farm inputs, resources and services needed to sustain agricultural productivity and ensure food security and slowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the authors write. But the food situation of millions of people was bad enough even before the pandemic broke out. After decades of decline, food insecurity has been on the rise again since 2014, being driven by conflict and economic slowdown as well as climate variability and extreme weather events. Nearly 690 million people, or 9% of the world population, were undernourished, and about 750 million, or nearly 10%, were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019. Between 2008 and 2018, the impacts of disasters cost the agricultural sectors of developing country economies over $108 billion in damaged or lost crop and livestock production.

According to the report, adaptation policies aimed at enhancing resilience to a changing climate are required. “One of the most powerful ways to adapt is to invest in early warning services and weather observing networks. Several less developed countries have major gaps in their observing systems and are lacking state of the art weather, climate and water services,” said Prof. Taalas. In a foreword to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres writes that the world knows what needs to be done to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. “We have the technology to succeed. But current levels of climate ambition and action are significantly short of what is needed,” he criticizes and adds a call to action. “This report shows that we have no time to waste. (…) Countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. They need to submit, well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ambitious national climate plans that will collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2010 levels by 2030. And they need to act now to protect people against the disastrous effects of climate change,” Guterres concludes. (ab)

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