UN Climate Action Summit 2019: 'United in Science' report warns of rising greenhouse gas levels; seeks cut in Global carbon budget

There are now 70 countries aiming to rewrite tougher nationally-determined contributions to their climate action agenda in 2020

In the months leading up to the end of the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September, a handful of climate science organisations joined forces to produce a landmark report for the policymakers present, underlining the massive (and growing) gap between the targets that nations agreed on to tackle global warming.

The "United in Science" report gathers details on the climate crisis from different perspectives and gives a 'unified' assessment on what human kind's response has been like thus far and widespread changes that science predicts for the global climate in the future. The report covers:

  • The state of global climate, trends in emissions and atmospheric concentrations of key greenhouse gases over time.
  • The urgency of a socio-economic transition in resource-intensive sectors like land use and energy to avoid further temperature rise and its impact.
  • The tools to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

"The scientific data and findings presented in the report represent the very latest authoritative information on these topics,” the Science Advisory Group told the UN Secretary-General at the Climate Action Summit. "It highlights the urgent need for the development of concrete actions that halt global warming and the worst effects of climate change."

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the Climate Summit in the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Image: AP.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the Climate Summit in the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters. Image: AP.

Several different contributing research agencies including the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), Global Atmosphere Watch, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Carbon Project, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Future Earth, Earth League and the Global Framework for Climate Services, have presented a short summary of their findings in the report. Every world leader in attendance at the Climate Action Summit on 23 September was handed a supplementary report with the full findings of the various organisations.

Here are highlights of the findings each organisation presented at the Summit:

2015-2019 appears to be the warmest five-year period in recorded history: WMO 

A WMO official announced on Monday that the global average temperature is set to rise to at least 1.2 to 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels over the next five years. This is dangerously close to the limit set in the 2015 Paris Accord, of which many countries are a part, including the agreement's most recent signee – Russia.

Some of the consequences of this warming (predicted quite accurately by the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees, were reiterated by WMO: widespread and extended heatwaves events, record-breaking wildfires, more cyclones, floods and drought. All of these changes are taking large bites out of both socio-economic development and the environment.

What the comprehensive report by the International Panel on Climate Change warns can be expected from the 0.5C difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees C. Source: IPCC Report

What the comprehensive report by the International Panel on Climate Change warns can be expected from the 0.5 degrees C difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees C. Source: IPCC Report

Sea-ice melt in the Arctic in summer months has increased at roughly 12 percent per decade in the 40 years spanning 1979-2018. The warmest five-year period seems to also coincide with the largest amount of glacier loss and four of the lowest recorded readings for winter sea-ice coverage between 2015 and 2019. The IPCC Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere due today will delve deeper into these concerns, and propose plausible solutions to break these trends.

Record greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere: WMO Atmosphere Watch

Some of the longest-living greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – have reached alarming new concentrations, according to a report presented by WMO's Global Atmosphere Watch. In 2018, greenhouse gas monitoring sites put global CO2 concentrations at 407.8 parts per million (ppm) on average. WMO predicts for 2019 that CO2 levels are on track to reach, possibly even exceed the 410 parts per million (ppm) mark by the year-end.

Using actual evidence collected from rocks and fossil at the time, researchers have pegged the last era when our planet's atmosphere had CO2 levels at 400 parts per million between 3 and 5 million years ago. Surface temperatures were 2-3 degrees Celcius warmer than it is today, and nearly all the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted away. This event was responsible for a sea-level rise of 10-20m around the world. The increase in CO2 emissions over three consecutive decades between 1985 and 2015 shows an alarming trend – a steady increase from 1.42 ppm per year 1985–1995, to 1.86 ppm/yr between 1995–2005, to 2.06 ppm/yr in 2005–2015.

Global carbon budget should be slashed: Global Carbon Project

The Global Carbon Project presented its findings on the state of carbon dioxide emissions around the world. CO2 reached record-high levels of 37 billion tonnes in 2018. So far, researchers are yet to find a peak and subsequent fall in the steadily increasing trend line for global emissions. But they do appear to be growing slower than the global economy's growth, according to the UN, which lends a glimmer of hope to the otherwise grim greenhouse gas emissions picture.

Analysing the current trends in the economy and energy growth, GCP predicts that emissions in 2019 will be equal to 2018 at best, but not any lower. If the growing global economy reduces its dependance on fossil-fuel-based energy sources, the result will be higher global emissions of CO2 among other greenhouse gases. "Extraordinary growth in renewable fuels" has been seen over the past decade, GCP stated, but its results are being masked by the bulk of a global energy system still dominated by industries dependent on fossil fuel.

In the midst of the modern climate crisis, the annual growth of fossil fuel-based energy is greater than the growth in renewables. This continuing growth of fossil fuel use needs to halt immediately, the GCP reported. For the world to achieve "net-zero emissions" so the climate at least stabilizes, let alone recovers, an urgent switch to non-carbon-based energy sources (wind, solar, nuclear, etc) needs to be adopted.

Natural carbon sinks like forests and oceans that remove roughly half the emissions from human activity today, will become less and less efficient at doing so with time. This highlights the need to put an end to large-scale deforestation and to expand natural sinks for carbon, which will need twin action: adopting better management techniques and restoration efforts at the habitat-level.

The world is pretty hung up on coal still.

The world is pretty hung up on coal still.

The emissions gap – where we are where we ought to be: UN Environment Programme

The greenhouse gas "emissions gap" is the difference in emission levels that countries have pledged to achieve and levels consistent with limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. This benchmark exists is to hold countries responsible to create ambitious goals to keep the warming well below 1.5-2 degrees C. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has contributed two pages from its flagship report, The Emissions Gap Report, the tenth edition of which is expected to release on 25 November.

Curating a collection of scientific studies on current and estimated future greenhouse gas emissions, the UNEP highlights the gap of where the world is likely to be and where it needs to be to prevent the increasingly catastrophic impacts of climate change. The report also summarizes what is needed to get there.

Their report states that for now, global emissions aren't expected to decline by 2030, let alone by 2020, with the current climate policies and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by roughly 200 countries to the Paris Agreement. Preliminary findings from the report also indicate that emissions as of 2018 are still on the rise. Ambitious commitments made by member nations to lower global emissions by 2030 needs to be roughly tripled to align with the 2 degree-C limit set by the Paris Accord and five times as much to align with the ideal 1.5 degree-C limit.

If a global effort is set in motion to set strong and unconditional commitments, and steadily increase climate action consistently throughout the twenty-first century, the global temperature will rise on average by 2.9 and 3.4 degrees C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. If the emissions gap isn't closed by 2030, exceeding the 1.5 degrees limit will be unavoidable. and the goal of being well-below the catastrophic 2 degree-limit will also out be of reach.

Representational image. Image courtesy: World Bank

Representational image. Image courtesy: World Bank

Insights from the climate: Future Earth, Earth League

A pair of international research organisations on the environment and human change, Future Earth and Earth League, presented a case for human influence as the dominant cause of changes to the Earth and its natural systems, in a new geological epoch called 'the Anthropocene'. The geological era is characterised by the many critical tipping points that have crossed and lie ahead, with far-reaching consequences and/or irreversible changes.

With climate change picking up in intensity, cities, per the duo's report, are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. A combination of mitigation measures for climate change and upscaling climate adaptation and risk management are key tasks going forward. Neither is adequate in isolation given the pace of climate change and the magnitude of its impacts.

Only immediate and all-inclusive action encompassing: deep de-carbonization complemented by ambitious policy measures, protection and enhancement of carbon sinks and biodiversity, and efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, will enable us to meet the Paris Agreement.

The full version of the United in Science report can be found here.

At the end of the Summit, there was one remarkable bit of good news: there are now 70 countries aiming to rewrite tougher nationally-determined contributions to their climate action agenda in 2020. This is up from the 23 countries that signed on before the Summit. Three of the newest signees – Norway, Argentina, Ethiopia and Turkey – together represent 6.8 percent of global emissions.

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