Despite pandemic slowdown, climate change continues to worsen

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A view of Uganda’s western Rwenzori mountains where communities faced a twin humanitarian emergency of COVID-19 and large-scale destruction caused by flash floods. Photo by: Climate Centre / CC BY-NC

NEW YORK — Despite a temporary drop in global greenhouse gas emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “the heating of our planet has not let up,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Wednesday.

Greenhouse gas concentrations are at record-high levels, and are on track to continue rising, according to the new report “United in Science 2020,” released by the World Meteorological Organization on Wednesday. The report “rings the alarm” that there is a growing chance that global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a warning benchmark set by the Paris Agreement on climate agreement — within just five years.

“Our world remains off track — far off track — to meet the objective of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If things would remain as they are, we would go up 3 to 5 degrees above the pr-industrial level,” Guterres said during a media briefing at the U.N.  

“The consequences of our failure to get to grips with the climate emergency are everywhere.”

— António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general

“As this report emphasizes, short-term lockdowns are no substitute for the sustained climate action we need to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The consequences of our failure to get to grips with the climate emergency are everywhere,” Guterres continued.

The stark analysis comes amid concern that the pandemic has taken focus away from climate change, which could be “worse” than COVID-19, Bill Gates wrote recently. The U.N. Climate Change Conference, originally set for this November, will take place in November 2021 because of the pandemic.

People living in low- and middle-income countries are expected to experience the most severe impacts of climate change, from rising food insecurity to increasingly severe and frequent droughts. The number of people living in severely water-scarce areas is expected to increase between 42% and 95%, or an additional 2.7 to 3.2 billion people. People in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia would face the biggest reduction of water availability by 2050, as their populations continue to grow.

Global CO2 emissions dropped 17% in early April, as many governments imposed stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions because of COVID-19. The drop was “unprecedented,” but the amount of CO2 emitted in April was still equivalent to emissions in 2006. And by early June, global daily CO2 emissions recovered to within 5% of emission levels during the same period in 2019, according to the report.

“We are soon returning back to normal levels, and this year we expect emissions will be 4 to 7% lower than last year’s, but this is a temporary anomaly,” explained Petteri Taalas, secretary-general at WMO. He spoke during the press briefing with Guterres.

The five-year period from 2016-2020 is expected to be the warmest on record, with an average global mean surface temperature of 1.1 C above the preindustrial era. Global figures for 2019 will not be available until later this year, but data from flagship observatories indicate that emissions continued to increase in 2019 and 2020.

Projected emissions for 2020 will depend on the continued trajectory of the pandemic and government responses to contain the virus. But record heat waves, destructive wildfires, floods, and severe droughts are among the ongoing challenges that will worsen over the next several decades, the report shows.

Emissions growth slowed to around 1% per year in the last decade, a decline from the 3% annual growth during the 2000s, according to the report. The “near-zero growth seen in 2019” gives hope that the CO2 emissions trend is stabilizing, but that progress could be reversed, the report shows.

“The latest data for Greenland alone shows an average loss of ice mass of 278 billion tons a year — more than 110 million Olympic sized swimming pools ... Let’s not forget that there is Antarctica. Let’s not forget that there are glaciers all over the world,” Guterres said.  

“Over the next five years, the Arctic is predicted to continue warming at over twice the overall global rate,” he continued.

Guterres laid out five action items that could help sustain reductions in emissions, necessary to stabilize worsening global warming trends. These measures include investing in jobs and business through a green transition following the pandemic and having major polluters — the United States, China, India, and Russia top the list — pay for their pollution.

One-hundred and twenty countries, which produce 25% of the world’s emissions, are working to implement carbon neutrality plans. Guterres called for the “big emitters” to also commit to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing their emissions.

“Without the big emitters, all the efforts that are made will not be enough,” Guterres said.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.