The World Meterological Organization (WMO) assesses that 2020 is on track to be the second warmest year in the most recent decade, with the warmest six years being since 2015.
Preliminary information, based on data collected from January to October 2020, shows how high-impact events such as floods, extreme heat and wildfires affected millions of people. In addition, threats to human health, security and economic stability have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise; ocean heat is at record levels, with more than 80 Percent of the global ocean having experienced a marine heatwave during 2020.
WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas has commented: “The average global temperature in 2020 is set to be about 1.2 °C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level. There is at least a one in five chance of it temporarily exceeding 1.5 °C by 2024.
“2020 has, unfortunately, been yet another extraordinary year for our climate. We saw new extreme temperatures on land, sea and especially in the Arctic. Wildfires consumed vast areas in Australia, Siberia, the US West Coast and South America, sending plumes of smoke circumnavigating the globe. We saw a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, including unprecedented back-to-back category 4 hurricanes in Central America in November. Flooding in parts of Africa and South East Asia led to massive population displacement and undermined food security for millions,” he said.
Some key highlights of the data:
- The most significant warm temperatures were experienced across northern Asia, particularly in the Siberian Arctic, where temperatures were more than 5 °C above average. This fuelled the most active wildfire season in an 18-year long data record, as estimated in terms of CO2 emissions released from the fires. The warming of the Arctic has repercussions on the climate in mid-latitude regions.
- Arctic sea ice for July and October 2020 was the lowest on record. Antarctic ice in 2020 was close to or slightly above the 42-year mean. Greenland lost 152 Gt of ice this year, despite a slower rate than 2019.
- Ocean heat content for 2019 was highest on record, affecting the near-surface layer of water with a knock-on effect for marine life and other dependent communities. Based on satellite water temperature measurement mechanisms, much of the ocean experienced at least one 'strong' marine heatwave at some point in 2020.
- Severe flooding affected many millions of people in East Africa and the Sahel, South Asia, China and Viet Nam.
- Severe drought particularly affected northern Argentina, Paraguay and the western border areas of Brazil. There was continued wildfire activity across the region, with the most severe in the Pantanal wetlands of western Brazil.
- The largest fires ever recorded in the United States occurred in late summer and autumn and it is estimated that widespread drought and extreme heat contributed to the fires. Death Valley in California reached 54.4 °C on 16 August, the highest known temperature in the world in at least the last 80 years.
- The number of tropical cyclones globally was above average in 2020, with the North Atlantic being exceptionally active. In addition, the timing of storms is somewhat different. Two Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in Central America in less than two weeks in November, resulting in devastating flooding and many casualties, at a time when storms of this size are usually winding down.
Risks and impacts
The report estimates hydro-meterological disasters contributed to the displacement of approximately 10 million people in the first half of 2020, mostly in South and South-east Asia and the Horn of Africa.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic added a further dimension to human mobility concerns, with particular effects on evacuation, recovery and relief operations related to high-impact events.
The report draws the conclusion that, after decades of decline, the increase in food insecurity since 2014 has been driven by conflicts and economic slowdown as well as by climate variability and extreme weather events.
Citing the International Monetary Fund, WMO suggests that the current global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will make it challenging to enact the policies needed for mitigation. However, the current situation also presents opportunities to set the global economy on a greener path in order to boost investment in green and resilient public infrastructure, thus supporting GDP and employment during the recovery phase.
At the launch of the report, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a searing indictment of humanity's "war" on the environment and has urged that everyone prioritise “making peace with nature”.
"We are facing a devastating pandemic, new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development," Guterres said in the address, delivered at Columbia University in New York. "To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken."
"Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back -- and it is already doing so with growing force and fury," he said, citing the collapse of biodiversity collapses, the extinction of species, the loss of forests and the spread of deserts.
"Oceans are overfished -- and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying," he said.
"Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually -- more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans."
The effects of this “assault” is impeding UN efforts to end poverty, ensure food security and limit instability and displacement, with the most deleterious impacts falling most heavily on the world's most vulnerable populations.
Ever optimistic, Guterres said: "Let's be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent toward chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere."