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Top 10 insights in climate science in 2020

Ranking compiled by 57 researchers from 21 countries

A group of 57 scientists from 21 countries compile the 10 key climate findings of 2020, presented yesterday 27 Jan by the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Patricia Espinosa. The report has been produced annually since 2017, is aimed at the international scientific-political community and is the result of collaboration between Future Earth, the Earth League and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The only representative from Spain is the ecologist Josep Peñuelas, CSIC atCREAF. 

The paper discusses everything from improved modelling that reveals the need to drastically reduce emissions to meet the Paris Agreement, to the increasing use of human rights litigation to catalyse climate action. In addition, the report also points to growing risk factors, such as permafrost emissions that are currently unaccounted for, concerns about weakening carbon sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems, and the impacts of climate change on freshwater and mental health. The report also points to opportunities arising from new insights into the economics and governance of climate change. The year 2021 will be critical for action if the world is to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and preserve humanity's critical climate niche. The investment costs in 2020-2024 to meet the Paris Agreement are estimated to be only about half of the post-pandemic stimulus packages that have been announced so far. However, the report notes that governments are failing to seize the opportunity presented by current events for positive change. For example, G20 governments are spending 60% more on fossil fuel-based activities than on sustainable investments. 

Here are the main insights of this year:

1. Improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide strengthen support for ambitious emission cuts to meet Paris Agreement. The climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide, how much the temperature rises with a certain increase of emissions, is now better understood. This new knowledge indicates that moderate emission reductions are less likely to meet the Paris climate targets than previously anticipated. 

 2. Emissions from thawing permafrost likely to be worse than expected. Emissions of greenhouse gases from permafrost will be larger than earlier projections because of abrupt thaw processes, which are not yet included in global climate models. 

 3. Tropical forests may have reached peak uptake of carbon: Land ecosystems currently draw down 30% of human CO2 emissions due to a CO2 fertilization effect on plants. Deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are causing these to level off as a carbon sink. 

 4. Climate change will severely exacerbate the water crisis. New empirical studies show that climate change is already causing extreme precipitation events (floods and droughts), and these extreme settings in turn lead to water crises. The impact of these water crises is highly unequal, which is caused by and exacerbates gender, income, and sociopolitical inequality. 

 5. Climate change can profoundly affect our mental health: Cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress. The promotion and conservation of blue and green space within urban planning policies as well as the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity in natural environments have health co-benefits and provide resilience. 

 6. Governments are not seizing the opportunity for a green recovery from Covid19. Governments all over the world are mobilizing more than US$12 trillion for Covid19 pandemic recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed for a Paris-compatible emissions pathway are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion. 

 7. Covid and climate change demonstrates the need for a new social contract. The pandemic has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks. 

 8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth would jeopardize the Paris Agreement. A Covid19 recovery strategy based on growth first and sustainability second is likely to fail the Paris Agreement. 

 9. Electrification in cities pivotal for just sustainability transitions.

10. Going to court to defend human rights can be an essential climate action. Through climate litigation, legal understandings of who or what is a rights- holder are expanding to include future, unborn generations, and elements of nature, as well as who can represent them in court. 

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