1 February 2021
Researchers Name Top 10 Insights from Climate Science in 2020
UN Photo/Mark Garten
story highlights

The climate insights report is published each year through a partnership between Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme.

Emissions from thawing permafrost are likely to be worse than expected.

Other key findings from 2020 include that climate change can affect our mental health, tropical forests may have reached peak uptake of carbon, electrification in cities is pivotal for just sustainability transitions, and going to court to defend human rights can be an essential climate action.

By Josh Tewksbury

Impacts from climate change threaten to be as abrupt and far-reaching in the coming years as the current pandemic, and they may roll back decades of development gains around the globe. To help inform collective action on the ongoing climate crisis and accelerate equitable transitions to sustainability, leading scientists have compiled the ten most important insights coming from climate change science over the last year.

In the report titled, ‘10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020,’ presented on 27 January 2021 to Patricia Espinosa, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, the authors outline some of 2020’s most important findings within the field of climate science. They highlight improved models that reveal the need for aggressive emission cuts in order to meet the Paris Agreement, and the growing use of human rights litigation to catalyze climate action.

The climate insights report is published each year through a partnership between Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). Together, these organizations gather leading scientists from around the world to synthesize the latest sustainability research for the international science-policy community. The 2020 edition was prepared by a consortium of 57 leading researchers from 21 countries.

The year 2021 will be a critical one if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement targets and preserve humanity’s critical climate niche. But, the report points out, investments made in 2020 do not reflect this urgency. The costs needed in 2020-2024 to deliver on the Paris Agreement, for example, are estimated to be about half the size of the pandemic-related stimulus packages that have been announced so far. However, governments have generally not stepped up to the opportunity to simultaneously drive infection rates and emissions toward zero. For instance, G20 governments are committing 60% more to fossil fuel-based activities than to sustainable investments – a trend that we must urgently reverse if we are to repair our deteriorating relationship with nature.

The top climate science insights for 2020 are:

  1. Improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide strengthens the case for ambitious emission cuts: The climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) – how much the temperature rises with a certain increase of emissions – is now better understood. This new knowledge indicates that moderate emission reductions are less likely to meet the Paris climate targets than previously anticipated.
  2. Emissions from thawing permafrost are likely to be worse than expected: Greenhouse gases trapped in permafrost will be emitted at a faster rate than earlier projected because of more abrupt thawing, which is not yet included in global climate models.
  3. Tropical forests may have reached peak uptake of carbon: Land ecosystems currently draw down 30% of human CO2 emissions due to a CO2 fertilization effect on plants. Deforestation of the world’s tropical forests is levelling off their carbon sink capacity.
  4. Climate change will severely exacerbate the water crisis: New empirical studies show that climate change is already causing extreme precipitation events (floods and droughts), and these extreme conditions in turn lead to water crises. The impact of water crises is highly unequal, as they occur disproportionately for certain gender, income, and sociopolitical groups, and then exacerbate the same inequalities.
  5. Climate change can affect our mental health: Cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress, according to new studies. Blue and green space in urban settings should be promoted and conserved within urban planning policies, along with protecting ecosystems and biodiversity in natural environments, for mental health co-benefits and providing community resilience.
  6. Governments have not seized the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19: Governments all over the world are mobilizing more than USD12 trillion for COVID-19 pandemic recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed for a Paris-compatible emissions pathway are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion.
  7. COVID-19 and climate change demonstrate the need for a new social contract: The pandemic has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks – whether health-related, environmental, or other risks.
  8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth will jeopardize achievement of the Paris Agreement: A COVID-19 recovery strategy based on growth first and sustainability second is not likely to lead to the emissions reductions needed to meet Paris goals.
  9. Electrification in cities is pivotal for just sustainability transitions: Urban electrification can be understood as a sustainable way to reduce poverty by providing over a billion people with modern types of energy, but also as a way to substitute clean energy for existing services that drive climate change and harmful local pollution.
  10. Going to court to defend human rights can be an essential climate action: Through climate litigation, legal understandings of who or what is a rights-holder are expanding to include future, unborn generations, and elements of nature, as well as who can represent them in court.

These scientific insights make clear that 2021 must be a banner year for climate action if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. To stabilize greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, we must leverage the best available research – as well as the trillions of dollars in COVID-19 recovery packages – to reduce emissions, boost resilience, and scale up sustainability efforts worldwide.

The author of this guest article, Josh Tewksbury, is the Interim Executive Director for Future Earth.

 A video of the 27 January launch event is available here. The report is adapted from the following paper: Pihl et al (2021), 10 New Insights in Climate Science – A Horizon Scan, Global Sustainability, 4, available here

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