Global warming and its impact on ecosystems and people grew in 2019, according to a study by the United Nations, which warned more ambitious action is needed by all countries as fast as possible.
The Statement on the State of the Global Climate, prepared each year by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN body, confirmed that the last year was the second warmest in history at a global level since recordkeeping began, with a temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
“The indications are crystal clear. Global warming is accelerating,” the head of the United Nations, António Guterres, said in a news conference.
According to the analysis, the five-year period 2015-2019 includes was the warmest recorded and the decade that ended in 2019 was the one with the highest temperatures known so far. Last year was the second warmest year there is a record of, surpassed only by 2016, when a very intense episode of El Niño shot temperatures up. The WMO predicts that temperatures will continue to rise and, for the time being, points out that this January was already the warmest on record.
“Since greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase, warming will continue,” said the secretary-general of WMO, Petteri Taalas. At a press conference, Taalas said the projections suggest that temperatures will continue to rise over the next ten years and will be between 1.1 and 1.65 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
UN scientists consider it vital to limit the rise in the planet’s temperature to a maximum of 1.5 degrees. That’s one of the goals included in the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015. But the latest data suggest that the world is not doing what is necessary to achieve it.
“We need all countries to demonstrate that they can reduce emissions this decade by 45% compared to 2010 levels and that we will achieve emission neutrality by mid-century. This is the only way to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees,” Guterres said.
According to Taalas, if nothing is done, the temperature would rise between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century and 8 degrees by the end of the next. For that to change, much more ambitious climate plans (and action) is needed from countries around the world.
Impacts of the warming planet
One of the problems higher temperatures cause is an increase in the risk of large forest fires, which in turn give off large amounts of carbon dioxide, which continues to fuel the heating cycle. This has happened with the large fires registered in Australia, Canada, or Siberia, which have triggered a spike in emissions, according to the report.
At the same time, the oceans are absorbing much of the heat from global warming and, as a consequence, continue to increase in temperature, breaking new records in 2019. The consequences of this are polar ice thaw, a rise in sea level, changes in ocean currents, changes in marine wildlife cycles, and changes in marine storms and other meteorological disasters.
The oceans absorb carbon dioxide, which dampens the effects of climate change but also increases the acidity of the waters and affects marine life, threatening, for example, a good part of coral reefs.
The report also highlighted the enormous impact on health that climate change is already having, with thousands of deaths linked to the increasingly frequent heatwaves recorded. According to WMO, up to 220 million people were exposed to great heat waves last year. In France, for example, up to 20,000 people were treated in the emergency room due to heat problems during the past summer and about 1,500 related deaths were recorded.
Globally, Taalas stressed that the “figures are much higher than those of the coronavirus”. To this is added the expansion of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes such as dengue, which in 2019 experienced a large peak of cases.
WMO confirmed that in China an improvement in air quality was seen in January as a result of the coronavirus, which shows the impact that human activity has on the climate.
Guterres, however, urged “not to overestimate” the reduction of emissions linked to the decline in economic activity by the virus, as it will be temporary, and insisted that the fight against the disease should not distract from the need to continue taking measures against climate change.
“We are not going to fight climate change with a virus,” warned Guterres, who insisted that countries have to reach the necessary commitments at COP26, scheduled for November in Glasgow.