NEW YORK -- A sobering call to action greeted world leaders at the start of the United Nations Climate Summit on Monday, with a stark report by the world’s leading scientists outlining the alarming extent of sea-level rise, shrinking ice sheets, increasing global temperatures and levels of greenhouse gas pollution in recent years.
The report, “United in Science,” compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and released at the U.N. Sunday, shows, for example, that the average global temperature over the 2015-2019 period is set be the hottest five-year period on record for large areas of the United States, including Alaska, as well as eastern parts of South America, most of Europe and the Middle East, northern Eurasia, Australia and areas of Africa south of the Sahara. In addition, it found global temperatures have risen by 1.1-degrees Celsius since 1850, increasing by 0.2-degrees Celsius just between 2011 and 2015.
“The report highlights the urgent need for the development of concrete actions that halt the worst effects of climate change,” the Science Advisory Group to the UN Climate Action Summit said at the report’s release. “It provides a unified assessment of the state of our Earth system under the increasing influence of anthropogenic climate change, of humanity’s response thus far and of the far-reaching changes that science projects for our global climate in the future.”
And there was some forward momentum, with dozens of countries announcing intentions to boost their climate ambitions by 2020. Governments, financers and businesses also made commitments toward expanded climate action. But the commitments served more as “a springboard” for action than “the end of the road,” said Andrew Steer, President & CEO of the World Resources Institute.
“While countries were expected to come to the Summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short,” he said, noting that the lack of ambition stood “in sharp contrast with the growing demand for action around the world.”
The United in Science report looks at how ambitious climate action could potentially limit certain irreversible impacts of global warming – but not without also laying out the devastation yet to come.
Take sea levels. The observed rate of global mean sea-level rise increased from 3.04 millimeters per year between 1997 and 2006 to approximately 4 millimeters per year between 2007 and 2016. Scientists attribute this acceleration to the increased rate of ocean warming and ice melt from the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets, and they anticipate the continued melting of ice mass in the future. The amount of glacial mass lost between 2015 and 2019 (the same years when global temperatures were highest) has already hit record levels.
Rising seas is one of the major challenges identified in a special report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which says that 1.5-degree Celsius of warming threatens to inundate small island countries and coastal regions, displacing communities and impacting biodiversity by the end of the century.
“Science is seriously considering proclaiming a state of planetary emergency,” Johan Rockstrom, director of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said during a ‘Building A Resilient Future’ forum on Sunday at The New School in New York attended by over 900 participants from various international organizations, businesses and political leaders.
Rockstorm said there is overwhelming evidence of the need to invest in mechanisms that will mitigate and respond to climate change while there are still opportunities to do so in ways that will keep the planet in a manageable state.
A climate emergency already upon us
In a speech to young climate activists over the weekend at UN headquarters, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is already facing a climate emergency.
“We are seeing this multiplication of natural disasters becoming more and more intense, more and more dramatic [and] with worse consequences like the glaciers melting, the ice caps disappearing, the corals bleaching, biodiversity being threatened, the heatwaves everywhere,” Guterres said, applauding the thousands of young people who joined a global climate strike ahead of the UN Climate Summit.
Guterres had earlier called on world leaders to come to New York for the Climate Summit, scheduled ahead of international climate change negotiations (UNFCCC COP 25) in Chile in December that are focused on getting countries to boost their commitments and actions toward implementing the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, which aims to limit long-term temperature rise to “well below” 2-degrees Celsius.
Countries must meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and act according to the recommendations in the 2018 IPCC report by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and limiting temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius by the end of the century, Guterres said.
“Things are getting worse. The worst forecasts that were made are being proven wrong, not because they were too dramatic, but because they were not dramatic enough,” he added.
'The current system is failing'
Under the Paris Agreement, countries are expected to increase their nationally determined contributions to helping curb climate change, what’s known as their NDCs. That includes the group of 47 least-developed countries represented by over a billion people throughout Africa, the Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean, who disproportionately suffer from the increasing impacts of climate change despite contributing least to global warming.
The current NDCs are estimated to lower global emissions by 2030 by up to 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2e) compared to a continuation of current policies.
Yet preliminary findings from the U.N.’s Emission Gap Report 2019 indicate that emissions continued to rise in 2018, and global emissions are not estimated to peak by 2030, let alone by 2020, if current climate policies and NDC ambition levels are continued.
This level of ambition needs to be roughly tripled to be aligned with the 2-degree warming goal and increased around fivefold to align with the 1.5-degree goal, the report added.
“The current system is failing,” said Sonam Wangdi, chair of the least-developing countries grouping to the global climate talks and the secretary of the national environmental commission of Bhutan. He believes that all countries need to act to address the challenge, saying ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit: “The global response to climate change must rapidly transform to move the world onto a 1.5-degrees Celsius compatible pathway.”
The Philippines Climate Change Commission Secretary Emmanuel De Guzman, on the other hand, views the climate summit as a place to rally for the US$100 billion committed by rich countries in 2009 to help finance the adaptation and mitigation needs of developing countries up to 2020. He urged developed countries to scale up their contributions to the Green Climate Fund. According to the GCF board, the fund had raised US$10.3 billion in pledges from 48 countries as of January 2019.
“Developed countries must ensure the flow of climate finance towards developing countries,” De Guzman said.
Climate finance is one of the actions Guterres has also prioritized. The other five priority actions are energy transition, industry transition, nature-based solutions, cities and local action and resilience and adaptation.
Many of those priorities align with those of leaders from the 18-country member Pacific Islands Forum, some of whom met with Guterres over the weekend ahead of the Climate Summit.
“We are on the frontline of the fight against climate change, which represents the single greatest threat to the future of our region,” President Lionel Aingimea of Nauru said in a statement.
During their meeting, the Pacific leaders also introduced to Guterres the Kainaki II Declaration, which calls on the international community to keep commitments made under the UNFCCC, such as the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund and to increase support and assistance for Pacific-led science-based initiatives, such as modelling risk mapping and the phaseout of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
Banner photo: A wide view of the General Assembly Hall as Secretary-General António Guterres (on screens and at podium) opens the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. The Summit was convened by the Secretary-General to deliver new pathways and practical actions that could shift the global response to climate change into high gear and accelerate action to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement / Credit: UN photo/Loey Felipe