The world is “way off track” in dealing with the climate emergency and time is fast running out, the UN secretary general has said.
Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm at the launch of the UN’s assessment of the global climate in 2019. The report concludes it was a record-breaking year for heat, and there was rising hunger, displacement and loss of life owing to extreme temperatures and floods around the world.
Scientists said the threat was greater than that from the coronavirus, and world leaders must not be diverted away from climate action.
The climate assessment is led by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with input from the UN’s agencies for environment, food, health, disasters, migration and refugees, as well as scientific centres.
The report says results from the World Glacier Monitoring Service indicate 2018-19 was the 32nd year in a row in which more ice was lost than gained. The melting of land ice combined with thermal expansion of water pushed sea levels up to the highest mark since records began.
The long-term decline of Arctic sea ice also continued in 2019, with the September average extent – usually the lowest of the year – the third worst on record.
“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5C or 2C targets that the Paris agreement calls for,” said Guterres. 2019 ended with a global average temperature of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. “Time is fast running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption and protect our societies.”
He added: “We need more ambition on [emission cuts], adaptation and finance in time for the climate conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, UK, in November. That is the only way to ensure a safer, more prosperous and sustainable future for all people on a healthy planet.”
Prof Brian Hoskins, of Imperial College London, said: “The report is a catalogue of weather in 2019 made more extreme by climate change, and the human misery that went with it. It points to a threat that is greater to our species than any known virus – we must not be diverted from the urgency of tackling it by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero as soon as possible.”
The WMO said its report provided authoritative information for policymakers on the need for climate action and showed the impacts of extreme weather.
A heatwave in Europe was made five times more likely by global heating, and the scorching summer led to 20,000 emergency hospital admissions and 1,462 premature deaths in France alone. India and Japan also sweltered and Australia started and ended the year with severe heat and had its driest year on record. Australia had “an exceptionally prolonged and severe fire season”, the WMO noted.
Floods and storms contributed most to displacing people from their homes, particularly Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and its neighbours, Cyclone Fani in south Asia, Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean, and flooding in Iran, the Philippines and Ethiopia. The number of internal displacements from such disasters is estimated to have been close to 22 million people in 2019, up from 17 million in 2018.
The US saw heavy rains, with the total from July 2018 to June 2019 being the highest on record. Total economic losses in the US for the year were estimated at $20bn, the WMO said.
Unpredictable climate and extreme weather was a factor in 26 of the 33 nations that were hit by food crises in 2019, and was the main driver in 12 of the countries. “After a decade of steady decline, hunger is on the rise again – over 820 million suffered from hunger in 2018, the latest global data available,” the report says.
The WMO said unusually heavy precipitation in late 2019 was also a factor in the severe desert locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa, which is the worst for decades and expected to spread further by June 2020 in a severe threat to food security.
Prof Dave Reay, of the University of Edinburgh, said: “This annual litany of climate change impacts and inadequate global responses makes for a gut-wrenching read. Writ large is the ‘threat multiplier’ effect that is climate change on the biggest challenges faced by humanity and the world’s ecosystems in the 21st century.”