A wide-ranging United Nations climate report, released on March 10, shows that climate change is having a major effect on all aspects of the environment, as well as on the health and wellbeing of the global population.
The report, The WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019, which is led by the UN weather agency (World Meteorological Organization), contains data from an extensive network of partners.
It documents physical signs of climate change – such as increasing land and ocean heat, accelerating sea level rise and melting ice – and the knock-on effects on socio-economic development, human health, migration and displacement, food security, and land and marine ecosystems.
Way Off Target
Writing in the foreword to the report, UN chief António Guterres warned that the world is currently “way off track meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for”, referring to the commitment made by the international community in 2015, to keep global average temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Several heat records have been broken in recent years and decades: the report confirms that 2019 was the second warmest year on record, and 2010-2019 was the warmest decade on record. Since the 1980s, each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850.
The warmest year so far was 2016, but that could be topped soon, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “Given that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase, the warming will continue. A recent decadal forecast indicates that a new annual global temperature record is likely in the next five years. It is a matter of time”, he said.
In an interview with UN News, Taalas said that, there is a growing understanding across society, from the finance sector to young people, that climate change is the number one problem mankind is facing today, “so there are plenty of good signs that we have started moving in the right direction”.
“Last year emissions dropped in developed countries, despite the growing economy, so we have been to show that you can detach economic growth from emission growth. The bad news is that, in the rest of the world, emissions grew last year. So, if we want to solve this problem we have to have all the countries on board”.
Taalas added that countries still aren’t fulfilling commitments they made at the UN Paris climate conference in 2015, leaving the world currently on course for a four to five degree temperature increase by the end of this century: “there’s clearly a need for higher ambition levels if we’re serious about climate mitigation”.
Australian Wildfires Spark Global CO2 Increase
Taalas noted that 2020 has seen the warmest January recorded so far, and that winter has been “unseasonably mild” in many parts of the northern hemisphere.
Ongoing warming in Antarctica saw large-scale ice melt and the fracturing of a glacier, with repercussions for sea level rise, and carbon dioxide emissions spiked following the devastating Australian bushfires, which spread smoke and pollutants around the world.
Australia’s 2018-2019 summer was the hottest ever recorded, reaching a peak of 41.9 degrees centigrade on December 18. Australia’s seven hottest days on record, and nine of the 10 hottest, occurred in 2019.
The country was not the only place affected by extreme heat, or wildfires. Heat records were broken in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even Nordic countries saw record-breaking temperatures, including Finland, which registered a high of 33.2 degrees in the capital, Helsinki.
Several high latitude regions, including Siberia and Alaska, saw high levels of fire activity, as did some parts of the Arctic, where it was previously extremely rare. Indonesia and neighbouring countries had their most significant fire season since 2015, and total fire activity in South America was the highest since 2010.
Ocean Warming Impact
Greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow in 2019, leading to increased ocean heat, and such phenomena as rising sea levels, the altering of ocean currents, melting floating ice shelves, and dramatic changes in marine ecosystems.
The ocean has seen increased acidification and deoxygenation, with negative impacts on marine life, and the wellbeing of people who depend on ocean ecosystems. At the poles, sea ice continues to decline, and glaciers shrunk yet again, for the 32nd consecutive year.
Between 2002 and 2016, the Greenland ice sheet lost some 260 Gigatonnes of ice per year, with a peak loss of 458 Gigatonnes in 2011/12. The 2019 loss of 329 Gigatonnes, was well above average.
Unprecedented Floods and Drought
In 2019, extreme weather events, some of which were unprecedented in scale, took place in many parts of the world. The monsoon season saw rainfall above the long-term average in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and flooding led to the loss of some 2,200 lives in the region.
Parts of South America were hit by floods in January, whilst Iran was badly affected in late March and early April. In the US, total economic losses from flooding were estimated at around $20 billion. Other regions suffered a severe lack of water. Australia has its driest year on record, and Southern Africa, Central America and parts of South America received abnormally low rains.
2019 also saw an above-average number of tropical cyclones, with 72 in the northern hemisphere, and 27 in the southern hemisphere. Some notably destructive cyclones were Idai, which caused widespread devastation in Mozambique and the east coast of Africa; Dorian, which hit the Bahamas and remained almost stationary for some 24 hours; and Hagibis, which caused severe flooding in Japan.
The Human Cost
The changing climate is exerting a toll on the health of the global population: the reports shows that in 2019, record high temperatures led to over 100 deaths in Japan, and 1,462 deaths in France. Dengue virus increased in 2019, due to higher temperatures, which have been making it easier for mosquitos to transmit the disease over several decades.
Following years of steady decline, hunger is again on the rise, driven by a changing climate and extreme weather events: over 820 million people were affected by hunger in 2018. The countries in the Horn of Africa were particularly affected in 2019, where the population suffered from climate extremes, displacement, conflict and violence. The region suffered droughts, then unusually heavy rains towards the end of the year, which was a factor in the worst locust outbreak in the past 25 years.
Worldwide, some 6.7 million people were displaced from their homes due to natural hazards – in particular storms and floods, such as the many devastating cyclones, and flooding in Iran, the Philippines and Ethiopia. The report forecasts an internal displacement figure of around 22 million people throughout the whole of 2019, up from 17.2 million in 2018.
COP26: Time to Aim High
“We have to aim high at the next climate conference in Glasgow in November”, said Guterres, speaking at the launch of the report at UN Headquarters in New York, on March 10, referring to the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), due to be held in the Scottish City in November.
The UN chief called on all countries to demonstrate that emission cuts of 45 per cent from 2010 levels are possible this decade, and that net-zero emissions will be achieved by the middle of the century.
Four priorities for COP26 were outlined by Guterres: more ambitious national climate plans that will keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels; strategies to reach net zero emissions by 2050; a comprehensive programme of support for climate adaptation and resilience; and financing for a sustainable, green economy.
‘We Will Not Fight Climate Change with a Virus’
The UN chief also addressed the ongoing spread of COVID-19, in response to a question on its likely effect on the climate, given the resulting drop in economic activity and, consequently, emissions. Guterres firmly responded that “both require a determined response. Both must be defeated”.
Although emissions have been reduced, Guterres noted that “we will not fight climate change with a virus”. In addition, he underlined the importance of not allowing the fight against the virus to distract from the need to defeat climate change, inequality and the many other problems the world is facing.
Whilst the disease is expected to be temporary, climate change, added the Secretary-General, has been a phenomenon for many years, and will “remain with us for decades and require constant action”.