Climate Crisis Got Worse in 2020, UN Report Says

Last year was one of the three hottest years on record.

Flames and smoke from wildfires cover the landscape in California

Philip Pacheco / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The United Nations report on the State of the Global Climate for 2020 is in, and it’s not looking good. 

The annual World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report, published last month, observed a long-term trend of rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather events that make the climate crisis impossible to ignore or deny.

“WMO has now issued 28 annual State of the Global Climate reports and these confirm long-term climate change,” the report’s scientific coordinator Omar Baddour tells Treehugger. “We have 28 years of data that show significant temperature increases over land and sea as well as other changes like sea-level rise, melting of sea ice and glaciers, ocean heat and acidification, and changes in precipitation patterns. We have confidence in our science.” 

A Continuing Trend

Some of the most disturbing findings of the provisional report are not unique to 2020 itself but are rather evidence that the climate crisis has been getting progressively more severe for some time. 

“Every decade since the 1980s has been the warmest on record,” Baddour says.

This included, of course, the decade between 2011 and 2020. Further, the last six years are likely to have been the hottest on record. 2020 will likely emerge as one of the three warmest years on record, despite the fact that it occurred during a La Niña event, which typically has a cooling effect. 

But the trends covered in the report extend beyond increasing atmospheric temperatures. The ocean is also heating up. In 2019, it had its highest heat content on record, and this is expected to continue in 2020. Further, the rate of ocean warming in the past decade was greater than the long-term average. 

Ice also continues to melt, with the Arctic seeing its second-lowest sea ice extent on record. The Greenland ice sheet lost 152 gigatons of ice to calving between September 2019 and August 2020, which was at the upper end of 40 years of data. All of this melting means that sea levels have begun to rise at a higher rate in recent years. 

And the cause of all this—the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere—continues to increase because of human activity. The amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere all reached record highs in 2019.

Unique Catastrophes

Dramatic skies and pack ice in the arctic water of Svalbard.

MB Photography / Getty Images

While climate change is a pattern and not an isolated incident, there were some particularly dramatic indicators that set 2020 apart, Baddour explains. 

  1. Arctic Heatwave: The Arctic has been heating at least twice the rate of the global average for the past four decades, but 2020 was still exceptional. Temperatures reached a record high of 38 degrees Celsius in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, and the heat fueled extensive wildfires and contributed to the low sea ice extent.
  2. The U.S. Burns: Wildfires were also a major problem in the Western United States. California and Colorado saw their largest fires ever recorded in the summer and fall of 2020. In Death Valley, California, the thermostat on Aug. 16 shot up to 54.4 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature recorded anywhere on Earth in at least the last 80 years.
  3. Hurricanes: The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was record-breaking both for the number of named storms—30 in all—and for the number of U.S. landfalls, at a total of 12. 

Then, of course, there was the coronavirus pandemic. While lockdowns in the spring of 2020 did briefly reduce emissions, it was not enough to make a difference when it comes to climate change.

“The temporary reduction in emissions in 2020 related to measures taken in response to COVID-195 is likely to lead to only a slight decrease in the annual growth rate of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, which will be practically indistinguishable from the natural interannual variability driven largely by the terrestrial biosphere,” the study authors wrote.

Instead, the pandemic simply made it more difficult to both study the climate crisis and mitigate its impacts, Baddour explains. For example, it made it more difficult to conduct weather observations and to evacuate people safely from fires and storms.

“Mobility restrictions, economic downturns, and disruptions to the agricultural sector exacerbated the effects of extreme weather and climate events along the entire food supply chain, elevating levels of food insecurity and slowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Baddour says.

Signs of Hope?

While all of this might sound bleak, Baddour says there was some cause for hope.

First, countries have begun to seriously up their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, China, the EU, and Japan all set dates for reaching net-zero carbon emissions, for example.

Second, there is increasing evidence that transitioning to a carbon-free economy can actually create jobs and opportunities.

The report concluded with an analysis from the International Monetary Fund’s October 2020 World Economic Outlook, which found that a combination of investing in green infrastructure and pricing carbon could reduce global emissions enough to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. When climate policies are introduced, they tend to shift both growth and employment towards renewable or low-carbon technologies and jobs. 

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic also provides a chance to shape the recovery in a different direction.

“Despite the public health calamity from COVID-19, the pandemic gives us an opportunity to reflect and to grow back greener,” Baddour says. “We should not miss this chance.”

Still, the situation remains urgent, and action cannot be taken for granted. 

“This report shows that we have no time to waste,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a press release. “The climate is changing, and the impacts are already too costly for people and the planet. This is the year for action. Countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. They need to submit, well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ambitious national climate plans that will collectively cut global emissions by 45 percent compared to 2010 levels by 2030. And they need to act now to protect people against the disastrous effects of climate change.”

View Article Sources
  1. "State of the Global Climate 2020." World Meteorological Organization, 2021.