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Improvements in climate science have a transformational effect on our understanding of environmental criticalities and what it will take to address them. The annual report on new insights in climate science reveals that although climate change indicators are accelerating there is also increasing popular and political momentum for change. 2021 will be a shed water moment if we are to meet the Paris Agreement objectives.

By consulting researchers and digging into fields related to climate change Future Earth, The Earth League and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) – a network of scientists, researchers and institutions that collaborate to address some of the planet’s most pressing issues –  put together the 10 new insights in climate science for 2020 with the participation of 57 leading researchers from 21 countries.

Presented on 27 January 2021 to Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, the authors shed light on some of 2020’s most important findings regarding climate science. These include both an investigation into emerging criticalities as well as discussing new solutions such as the growing use of human rights litigation to catalyze climate action.

The report’s findings conclude that 2020 has gone hand in hand with an improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide, permafrost thaw could release more carbon emissions than expected, and that the uptake of carbon in tropical ecosystems is weakening. Furthermore, human beings are exacerbating problems such as water shortages whilst suffering widespread impacts on mental health due to climate change.

On the other hand, new solutions are also emerging. These involve rethinking our economic models, using rights-based litigation, and strengthening governance systems. The report also recognises that the huge disruption caused by COVID can become an opportunity for positive change, particularly if economic stimulus packages are directed towards sustainable investments.

The pandemic has been a “stress test” that has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks. The impacts of climate change have the potential to be as abrupt and far-reaching as the current pandemic.

10 new insights in climate science for 2020

10 new insights 

Looking at the relationship between temperature rises and increases or decreases in emissions is a central component of climate science. “New knowledge indicates that moderate emission reductions are less likely to meet the Paris climate targets than previously anticipated,” states the report, which also claims that improved climate models are strengthening the case for more ambitious emissions cuts to meet the Paris objectives.

By improving climate models, scientists and researchers have been able to provide more accurate predictions of what it will take to mitigate climate change. Not only at a global level but also by improving at regional-scale predictions. Now more precisely than ever, researchers can predict heavy rainfall events and hot and cold extremes at a regional scale offering new opportunities for resilience planning. An excellent example of effective use of regional-scale modelling is the CMCC’s Risk Analysis: Climate Change in Italy report that provides Italian policymakers with valuable tools with which to plan their climate strategies tailored to specific localities.

The second new insight in climate science relates to our understanding of the effects of thawing permafrost on the planetary balance. Rising average temperatures and increasing the frequency of anomalous heatwaves in places such as Siberia which in turn leads to unprecedented thawing of permafrost. Scientists and researchers now believe that thawing permafrost will emit more greenhouse gasses than previously included in global climate models.

Dorotea Iovino, an oceanographer expert in numerical modelling at CMCC confirms that, “The Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, in some regions, the temperature rise is four times higher than the global average. The Arctic heat has triggered the rapid decrease of sea ice, the thawing of carbon-rich permafrost and extreme wildfires.” 

Similarly, our understanding of the effects of deforestation and the ability of land ecosystems to act as carbon sinks has also improved. Although land ecosystems currently sequester around 30% of human CO2 emissions, deforestation – caused by a variety of man-made factors – is driving this percentage down at an alarming rate. Furthermore, new insights in climate science give a more accurate indication of how changes in land use are threatening the ability of land to act as a carbon sink, particularly in tropical areas where deforestation continues.

An updated understanding of the extent of thawing permafrost and the ability of tropical ecosystems to act as a carbon sink further consolidates the need for ambitious and immediate emissions reductions. 

Water is also a central theme, whereby a rise in water scarcity is going hand in hand with increasing demand for water, which is growing by about 1% a year (after a sixfold increase over the past century). Climate science is generating ever more accurate data on how climate change impacts, such as rising temperatures and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events, are increasing water stress around the globe. In 2020 the United Nations published their World Water Development Report, directly linking the crises of water quality and quantity with climate change. Furthermore, water crises have a significant impact on migrations and the displacement of peoples

Another area of study that has seen an increased focus in 2020 is the effects of climate change on mental health. According to new studies, cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress. 

Growing evidence also suggests that the overall burden of mental health impacts of climate variability will affect those most vulnerable in a disproportionate manner. However, there is also evidence that the promotion and conservation of green spaces in urban settings – where the majority of the planet’s population are currently residing – could bring co-benefits of mental health and community resilience.

One of the central themes of 2020 has certainly been the COVID pandemic. Linking the recovery from the pandemic to sustainable pathways is considered to be a new frontier in climate science and one that could prove to be a game-changer. Climate scientists and researchers are already indicating that although governments have announced trillions of dollars in stimulus packages these are not sufficiently geared towards fostering low-carbon investments and are even funding activities that may lock-in emissions-intense pathways.

Temporary improvements in air quality and reduction in GHG emissions derived from lockdowns are an indication of the potential for reducing our impact on the climate. However, these drops are unlikely to have a long term impact unless we can catalyse on the opportunity and implement sustainable models of development. What is more economic stimulus that is focused exclusively on growth is incompatible with the Paris Agreement and a growing number of studies highlight the economic benefits of strategies that stay well below 2°C or even 1.5°C.

More than ever it is clear that society is vulnerable to systemic crises and that there are transboundary risks such as climate change that need to be addressed. NGOs, community groups, youth movements, and many other social actors have shown that transboundary responses to global risks of climate change are also possible and there is mounting pressure on governments to act decisively.

A key area in which governments can act to implement meaningful change is electrification and the energy transition. Evermore research indicates that electrification is the key to decarbonization and that urban areas in particular will play a central role in this transition. What is more, Commercial actors such as utilities and investors are increasingly seeing electrification as markets for growth and linking electrification to a just transition is another major new insight in climate science.

Finally, the emergence of rights-based litigation as a tool with which to address pressing climate issues has also grown. In this way, courtrooms are becoming a key aspect for those seeking to limit climate change. “The cases that have been fought with climate change as a primary concern have meant an expansion of who and what has legal standing in courts and as a matter of law, and who may represent interests such as those of future generations,” outlines the report.

What advancement in climate science throughout 2020 has highlighted is the amplification of environmental impacts ranging from deforestation and melting permafrost. However, there is also much potential in climate change economics and governance, and the use of climate litigation. There is a clear window of opportunity to act and 2021 will be a critical year if we are to achieve the Paris Agreement targets.

New insights in climate science give an indication of where the best available research is being conducted to understand our effects on the climate and reduce emissions, boost resilience, and scale up sustainability efforts worldwide.