Top 10 Things We Learned About Climate Change In 2020

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  • Feb 11, 2021


Every year, Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme collaborate on a report that summarizes the most important developments in climate science during the previous 12 months. This year’s report, entitled 10 New Insights In Climate Science 2020, was prepared by a consortium of 57 leading researchers from 21 countries. It suggests there was both good news and not so good news about our overheating planet during the year that just ended. The findings are summarized below by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Credit: Future Earth

Improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide strengthens the case for ambitious emission cuts.

The climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) – 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.

Emissions from thawing permafrost are likely to be worse than expected. 

Greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost will be emitted at a faster rate than earlier projected because of more abrupt thawing, which is 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 is leveling off their carbon sink capacity.

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 conditions in turn lead to water crises. The impact of water crises is highly unequal, as they occur disproportionately for certain gender, income, and sociopolitical groups, and then exacerbate the same inequalities.

5. Climate change can affect our mental health.

Cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress, according to new studies. Blue and green space in urban settings should be promoted and conserved within urban planning policies, along with protecting ecosystems and biodiversity in natural environments, for mental health co-benefits and providing community resilience.

6. Governments have not seized the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19.

Governments all over the world are mobilizing more than USD12 trillion for COVID-19 pandemic recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed for a Paris-compatible emissions pathway are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion.

7. COVID-19 and climate change demonstrate the need for a new social contract.

The pandemic has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks – whether health related, environmental, or otherwise.

8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth will jeopardize achievement of the Paris Agreement.

A COVID-19 recovery strategy based on growth first and sustainability second is not likely to lead to the emissions reductions needed to meet Paris goals.

9. Electrification in cities is pivotal for just sustainability transitions.

Urban electrification can be understood as a sustainable way to reduce poverty by providing over a billion people with modern types of energy, but also as a way to substitute clean energy for existing services that drive climate change and harmful local pollution.

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.

Doing Nothing Will Cost More Than Doing Something

A familiar refrain when the issue of global heating is raised is that the costs of addressing it are too high, which leads inevitably to this question: How much is a sustainable planet worth? By happy circumstance, just as I was preparing this story for CleanTechnica, an email arrived in my inbox announcing the results of a new study by Energy Innovation that claims if we wait until 2030 to get serious about fixing our environment so we can all continue to live on this tiny blue spaceship drifting along at the edge of the universe, it will cost 72% more than if we shoulder the burden today. Here’s the introduction to that report:

The physics of Earth harbor a frightening punch line for the climate change story: Even though the consequences of climate change persist for the very long term, the time to avoid those consequences is very short. A delay — of even a decade — in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will lock in large scale, irreversible change. Delay also increases the risk that the whole climate system will spin out of control.

If we start immediately and make steady progress, we can convert to near-zero energy sources. But if we wait even a decade, the accelerated transition will create a global economic shock. We used the Energy Policy Simulator to model two illustrative U.S. climate policy scenarios reaching net zero cumulative emissions abatement by 2050, one starting climate action in 2021 and the second delaying climate action until 2030.

The resulting differences in costs and required deployment are striking. The net present value of the 2030 Scenario changes in cumulative capital, operational, and fuel expenditures are 72 percent more than the 2021 Scenario. Delaying also requires astounding clean energy deployment — business-as-usual wind and solar deployment is projected to be roughly 20 gigawatts at the end of this decade, but the 2030 Scenario would require six times that amount by 2030 and nine times that by the mid 2030s.

Delayed action also means additional polluting power plants, factories, and equipment continue coming online for the next decade, but then making a fast clean energy transition will require expensive retirement of all that polluting equipment before the end of its functional life. This message may be alarming, but it is not alarmism; it’s physics. And Earth’s climate physics have serious implications for political action and technological innovation in the coming decade.

Addressing climate change is like turning an ocean liner. Changing course takes time, and no amount of rudder, applied too late, can hit the mark. The world must start to reduce emissions now or it will not reach any meaningful CO2 concentration target. The upshot is that the next decade is critical.

Credit: Energy Innovation

The IISD says the report from Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme makes the same point. “The year 2021 will be a critical one if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement targets and preserve humanity’s critical climate niche. But, the report points out, investments made in 2020 do not reflect this urgency. The costs needed in 2020-2024 to deliver on the Paris Agreement, for example, are estimated to be about half the size of the pandemic-related stimulus packages that have been announced so far.

“However, governments have generally not stepped up to the opportunity to simultaneously drive infection rates and emissions toward zero. For instance, G20 governments are committing 60% more to fossil fuel-based activities than to sustainable investments — a trend that we must urgently reverse if we are to repair our deteriorating relationship with nature.” President Biden agrees. “We’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis. We can’t wait any longer.” And if we do, it will cost us far more than if we act now.

Duplicity In High Places

CleanTechnica is filled with articles extolling the virtues and wonders of clean energy, the EV revolution, and the benefits of lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But all the science and technology in the world is worthless if governments refuse to act. “Many countries are trying to balance their desire to contribute to the global fight against climate change against domestic pressures to exploit their own natural resources.” says Bloomberg Green in an email. It points specifically to the case of the UK, which plans to host the latest round of international climate negotiations later this year.

Yet it has decided to support the development of a new coal mine in the country’s West Cumbria region — a mine which, Rebecca Willis, a professor at the Lancaster Environment Center, says will contribute 420 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during its lifetime — equal to total U.K. emissions in 2018. Not to worry, the government says. 85% of those emissions will occur in the countries that coal from West Cumbria will exported to. Therefore, they won’t count as part of the UK’s climate emissions pursuant to the Paris accords.

“It’s a disastrous decision for the U.K.’s claim to climate leadership,” says Willis. “It’s confusing to people that, as the country leading international climate negotiations, the U.K. is telling other countries what it expects of them, but consenting to a new development digging out the most polluting fossil fuel.” One way to resolve such conflicts she says is for national governments to set clear dates when different types of carbon intensive activities are to be phased out completely. She notes the U.K. has a goal to phase out coal fired electrical generation by 2025 but has no deadline on the mining of coal, which leaves a hole in the country’s climate change protocols big enough to drive a huge new coal mine through.

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

The driver of all this cognitive dissonance at the national level, of course, is jobs. No country can allow its citizens to sit around all day with nothing to do but dream up ways to overthrow the government. In the final analysis, conquering the challenge of a warming planet is critical to having any jobs at all, for it there are no people, employment becomes moot. Perhaps the best way to frame this is to draw an analogy to the three astronauts trapped inside a crippled spacecraft as the carbon dioxide levels from their own respiration threatens them with an existential crisis. Here’s a clip from the movie Apollo 13.


That is not to say that we should not be mindful of the wrenching dislocations that a change in the global economy from one based on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels to one based on clean, renewable energy. But the larger picture is that new technologies will bring new industries with new job opportunities. Mark Jacobson and the Drawdown team have laid out detailed plans for making that happen.

We simply cannot afford to let short term interests overwhelm the long term need to stop destroying the Earth so those who come after us have a sustainable world where they can thrive. There is hard work to be done and we had best get on with the job. “No time like the present,” my old Irish grandmother liked to say. And if taking action now cost far less than deferring action till later, we would be foolish to delay any longer.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 11, 2021

6. Governments have not seized the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19.

This one is so frustrating because it shouts "if not now, when" to the whole issue. Seems like leadership wasn't looking for the right moment, they just don't necessarily recognize the priority-- and that should signal to voters how seriously to take climate positions of their candidates moving forward!

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