Reduced human footprint due to the coronavirus pandemic will not have any effect on global warming unless climate concerns are built into a sustainable recovery

There has been unprecedented wildfires across the world, which are attributed in part to climate change (Photo by Michael Routh/Alamy)

There have been unprecedented wildfires across the world, which are attributed in part to climate change (Photo by Michael Routh/Alamy)

The coronavirus pandemic may have reduced human activity drastically in 2020, but the march of climate change has not reduced, a new report by leading science organisations has found. Emissions are heading in the direction of pre-pandemic levels following a temporary decline caused by the lockdown and economic slowdown, said the United in Science 2020 report released on September 9.

The planet is set to see its warmest five years on record, a trend that is likely to continue, the report said. The world is not on track to meet targets agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep global temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius, much less at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

By 2050, the number of people at risk of floods will increase from its current level of 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion, the report said. In the early to mid-2010s, 1.9 billion people, or 27% of the global population, lived in potential severely water-scarce areas, it said. By 2050, this number will increase to 2.7 to 3.2 billion people. India, with one of the longest coastlines in the world, will be critically affected by rising seas. Its agriculture sector – much of it rain-fed – is also deeply vulnerable.

Far from slowing down emissions growth, the Covid-19 pandemic has impeded our ability to monitor climate change through the global observing system.

“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,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the foreword to the report. “We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future. We need science, solidarity and solutions.”

The United in Science report presents latest scientific data and findings related to climate change to inform global policy and action. The second in a series, it was coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with inputs from the Global Carbon Project (GCP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Environment Programme and the UK Met Office.

Source: United in Science 2020 report

Source: United in Science 2020 report

“Reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2020 will only slightly impact the rate of increase in the atmospheric concentrations, which are the result of past and current emissions, as well as the very long lifetime of carbon dioxide,” the WMO said. “Sustained reductions in emissions to net zero are necessary to stabilise climate change.”

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the quality of forecasts and other weather, climate and ocean-related services by impacting global observing systems, the UN weather agency said.

Cascading effects on ecosystems

Human-induced climate change is affecting life-sustaining systems, from the top of the mountains to the depths of the oceans, leading to accelerating sea-level rise, with cascading effects for ecosystems and human security, the IPCC said in the report.

“Increasing wildfire and abrupt permafrost thaw, as well as changes in Arctic and mountain hydrology, have altered the frequency and intensity of ecosystem disturbances,” it said.

During peak lockdown in early April 2020, the daily global fossil carbon dioxide emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17% compared to 2019, according to the Global Climate Project.

Even so, emissions are still equal to 2006 levels, highlighting both the steep growth over the past 15 years and the continued dependence on fossil sources for energy.

By early June 2020, global daily emissions had mostly returned to within 5% below 2019 levels, which reached a new record of 36.7 Gigatonnes last year, 62% higher than at the start of climate change negotiations in 1990, GCP said in the report.

The Emissions Gap Report 2019 by the United Nations Environment Programme showed that the cuts in global emissions required per year from 2020 to 2030 are close to 3% for a 2 degrees Celsius target and more than 7% per year on average for the 1.5 degrees of the Paris Agreement.

“Transformational action can no longer be postponed if the Paris Agreement targets are to be met,” the report said. “It is still possible to bridge the emissions gap, but this will require urgent and concerted action by all countries and across all sectors.”

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