UN Report Presents A Unified Assessment of The Critical State of Our Earth System


Photo: The La Mojana region of Colombia is highly vulnerable to climate-change induced floods and droughts. By building resilience to these impacts, the project also insulates communities from other shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: UNDP Colombia/Mauricio Enriquez O.

UN Report Presents A Unified Assessment of The Critical State of Our Earth System

By J Nastranis 14 September 2020

NEW YORK (IDN) – As global temperatures continue to hit new highs, the choice, according to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, is between “business as usual, leading to further calamity, or using the recovery from COVID-19 to provide a real opportunity to put the world on a sustainable path”.

Speaking at the launch of the report United in Science 2020 on September 9, he 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,” he said.

The report finds that CO2 emissions 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.

The report 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.

The report has been compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) under the direction of the UN Chief to bring together the latest climate science related updates from a group of key global partner organizations – WMO, Global Carbon Project (GCP), UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Met Office. The content of each chapter is attributable to each respective organization.

United in Science 2020 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.

In foreword to the report, the UN Secretary-General points out that this has been an unprecedented year for people and planet. “The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives worldwide. At the same time, the heating of our planet and climate disruption has continued apace. Record heat, ice loss, wildfires, floods and droughts continue to worsen, affecting communities, nations and economies around the world. Furthermore, due to the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the past century, the planet is already locked into future significant heating.”

The solution to slowing down the rate of global temperature rise and keeping it below 1.5°C is for nations to dramatically cut emissions, with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, he adds. While emissions fell during the peak of the pandemic confinement measures, they have already mostly recovered to within 5 per cent of the same period in 2019 and are likely to increase further.

“Never before has it been so clear that we need long term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development. We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future,” says the UN Chief.

He adds: In order to do that, governments need consistent and solid science, backed by the strong collaboration of scientific institutions and academia, to underpin policy decisions that can tackle the greatest challenges of our time.

This report by the United Nations and global scientific partner organizations, provides an update one year from the first United in Science report, which was launched to inform the United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019.

United in Science 2020 presents a unified assessment of the state of our Earth system, detailing how emissions have evolved in 2020, and providing projections for the critical years ahead. The report further addresses key thematic issues on the front lines of climate change, such as water, oceans and the cryosphere and highlights the vulnerability of land-based, marine and air observing systems which are essential to underpin our understanding of climate science.

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,” adds 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.”

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,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, 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,” adds Mr. Taalas. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 September 2020]

Photo: The La Mojana region of Colombia is highly vulnerable to climate-change induced floods and droughts. By building resilience to these impacts, the project also insulates communities from other shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: UNDP Colombia/Mauricio Enriquez O.

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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