The second decade of the 21st century will draw to a close in less than a week’s time. And keeping in line with the general theme this past 10 years, the final year has brought with it yet more evidence that Earth is still firmly enroute to a hot-house future. While global average temperatures are set to increase by 3.2°-3.9°C compared to pre-industrial levels, more than double the lower limit set in the Paris Agreement, unless drastic emission cuts are undertaken, the effects of climate change are already ramping up to that crescendo. This year not only saw multiple scientific assessments and observations alluding to this fact, but also unprecedented damage caused by extreme weather and other climate change impacts.
Following the Special Report on 1.5°C that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in October last year, two new reports on land and the cryosphere & oceans released this year revealed with greater clarity what lay in store in terms of climate change impacts and responses from the earth system in the coming decades. According to the new scientific assessments, along with the irreversible changes in ecosystems around the globe, millions of people will be at risk of displacement and food insecurity in the 21st century.
The oceans have been a particularly big worry as rising sea levels have been accompanied by increasingly warm and acidic waters. Ocean acidity has increased some 26% since the industrial revolution, while upper ocean heat content in 2019 is at or near record levels. Cumulatively, these are expanding “dead zones” in oceans where biological activity is much reduced, according to the IPCC report on the cryosphere and oceans.
Scientists have also gotten louder in their warnings over the past year. But despite macabre warnings of an unmitigated catastrophe that could take decades to play out, carbon emissions this year showed no signs of slowing down. After a brief three-year lull in CO2 concentrations, the world saw a second straight year of rise in 2018 as globally averaged concentrations jumped another 0.5% to reach 407.8 ppm. These are the highest levels seen in at least 3 million years, the World Meteorological Organisation noted in its Greenhouse Gas Bulletin released in November this year. The WMO has also stated that based on preliminary data, levels are likely to register a rise again in 2019. At current rates, the global budget for carbon is likely to be exhausted in the next two decades.
Keeping in line with rising CO2 levels, the earth’s temperature, too, continued its climb in the past decade and 2019 is likely to be the third-warmest year on record. According to the WMO, the global average temperature from January to October this year was 1.1°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures, with July 2019 becoming the hottest month on record. The past decade is “almost certainly” to be the warmest decade on record and forecasts are already indicating that temperatures are likely to continue to rise in 2020. This year we also found that the Arctic permafrost, expected to remain frozen for another 70 years, had already begun thawing and could potentially be releasing hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane, a potent GHG, into the atmosphere.
The heat was palpable all decade and 2019 was no different. Several parts of the world were literally on fire as wildfires ravaged parts of North America, Australia, South America, Southeast Asia and the Arctic region. While the Arctic wildfires caused widespread alarm, equally concerning were the unprecedented fires in the Brazilian Amazon and the Indonesian rainforest, which saw its most significant fire season since 2015, exacerbating drought conditions in the region. Heatwaves and droughts were experienced in practically every continent of the world over the past year. While South Asia experienced its second-longest heatwave on record between May and June, Europe had two major heatwaves in June and July and Australia had its hottest summer on record in 2018-19. The occurrence of drought, too, was widespread over the year with several parts of South America, Central America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Exceptionally dry conditions in southeast Asia brought the 4,500km Mekong river to its lowest level in a century this year, affecting millions of farmers and food security in the region. While Chile in South America has received just 26% of its normal rainfall so far this year, southern African countries are also staring at a deepening drought, which might result in unprecedented food shortages as crop production in the region has declined by 30%.
Even as southern Africa faces drought conditions, over three million people in central and east Africa have been affected by floods due to an exceptionally active monsoon season. The African monsoon comes on the heels of heaviest Indian monsoon witnessed by the subcontinent in 25 years. The monsoon was affected by a month-long delay in arrival and withdrawal and 560 extreme rain events, 74% higher than the number in 2018. While 1,685 deaths were reported across India due to heavy rainfall and flooding, several hundreds were reported dead in neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan due to torrential downpours. Tropical cyclone activity also registered an increase in 2019 with the northern hemisphere witnessing 66 tropical cyclones as compared to the average of 56. The Indian subcontinent saw seven cyclones hit the region – the highest number in 33 years and significantly higher than the average of 4.5 cyclones a year. Southern Africa’s precarious food security was delivered a big blow in April this year as powerful cyclones Idai and Kenneth made landfall in Mozambique and recorded billions of dollars in damages. Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean islands and the east coast of the US was noted not only for its high intensity, but also for its slow movement, which caused heavy destruction, particularly in the Bahamas where it stayed stationary for about 24 hours.
While it has long been suggested that climate change will lead to increased displacement, migration and conflict in the coming decades, evidence of this has begun to surface in the past couple of years. The UN’s World Migration Report 2020 has estimated that over 17 million people were displaced due to natural disasters in 2018. India, with nearly 2.7 million persons, had the highest number of internally displaced people due to disasters and extreme weather in 2018. The WMO estimates, in its State of Global Climate 2019 report, that the number of internally displaced people due to extreme weather and natural disasters is likely to go up in 2019, which had seen 7 million new internal displacements until June. According to the WMO, this number is likely to have more than tripled to 22 million due to extreme weather and hydrometeorological events.
The increasing costs and casualties of climate change, very much evident in 2019, though failed to move world leaders. Despite impacts being felt across the world and repeated calls by scientists to accelerate climate action and ramp up ambition, leaders failed to deliver. The first big sign of apathy on the part of governments came in September at the UN Climate Action Summit, on the side-lines of the General Assembly. After months of imploration by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for countries to review and enhance their ambitions for climate actions, including rapid cutbacks in emissions, countries responded with little more than a whimper with none of the major emitters committing to anything more than words over and above their NDCs. The bigger let-down though was reserved for the COP25, which failed to resolve a two-year stalemate over key clauses of the Paris Agreement rule book that could now jeopardise the implementation of the historic agreement. In spite of all the dark clouds that seem to have converged at the horizon, the year was not a complete loss when it came to the fight against climate change. For the first time, as people around the world experienced the dread of climate change that was quickly becoming normal, the issue seems to have seeped into public consciousness. This past year has seen a gradual and continual upwelling of mass movements led primarily by young people that has not only captivated the public, but is also pressurising governments into taking action. On the other hand, protests against government taxes aimed at cutting emissions and increased costs of living associated with energy transitions in several regions of the world have brought attention to the importance of justice and equity in climate action within and between societies. The pressure of mass mobilisation is beginning to make a dent as evidenced by the EU’s unveiling of their broad plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Governments around the world are fast realising that inaction on climate is quickly becoming politically unviable, and one can only hope that this results in progressive ambition over the next year.