From wildfires, droughts, floods, heat waves, warming seas to melting ice, 2019 was a year dominated by stories of the unfolding climate crisis. But the year bowed out with a whimper as far as meaningful international action was concerned. What will 2020 bring? It is definitely a crunch year for biodiversity & climate emergencies. Here is a look at some of the important climate and environmental news stories set to define the year 2020…
Nature-based solutions offer the best way to achieve human well-being, address climate change and protect the planet. Yet nature is in crisis, as we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history. Humans depend for their very survival on stable and healthy ecosystems and urgent action is needed in 2020 to get the world on track to a more sustainable future. This is a “super year” for the environment—a make or break year in which key international meetings will set the tone and agenda for environmental action in the decade ahead.
Ocean temperatures hit record high: The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities. The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night. Hotter oceans lead to more severe storms and disrupt the water cycle, meaning more floods, droughts and wildfires, as well as an inexorable rise in sea level. Higher temperatures are also harming life in the seas, with the number of marine heatwaves increasing sharply. The most common measure of global heating is the average surface air temperature, as this is where people live. But natural climate phenomena such as El Niño events mean this can be quite variable from year to year. “The oceans are really what tell you how fast the Earth is warming,” said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. “Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news.” “We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member. The analysis uses ocean data from every available source. Most data is from the 3,800 free-drifting Argo floats dispersed across the oceans, but also from torpedo-like bathythermographs dropped from ships in the past. The results show heat increasing at an accelerating rate as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. The rate from 1987 to 2019 is four and a half times faster than that from 1955 to 1986. The vast majority of oceans regions are showing an increase in thermal energy. This energy drives bigger storms and more extreme weather, said Abraham: “When the world and the oceans heat up, it changes the way rain falls and evaporates. There’s a general rule of thumb that drier areas are going to become drier and wetter areas are going to become wetter, and rainfall will happen in bigger downbursts.” Dan Smale, at the Marine Biological Association in the UK, and not part of the analysis team, said: “The upper layers of the ocean are vital for marine biodiversity, as they support some of the most productive and rich ecosystems on Earth and warming of this magnitude will dramatically impact on marine life.”
Air pollution: the silent emergency: It’s getting harder and harder simply to be able to breathe safely. In 2019, hazardous air pollution choked cities around the world. In Delhi, the situation has become almost apocalyptic. Conditions in the city of nearly 19 million people were “worse than hell,” according to the country’s Supreme Court. India has been hit by a record wave of choking air pollution, due to a mix of factors including industrial pollution and farmers burning their crops outside the city, all exacerbated by still, hot weather. At points, the quality of the air was so toxic that some experts said it was equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Delhi is extreme, but it’s far from the only place where breathing has become hazardous. More than 90% of people globally breathe toxic air. Air pollution contributes to around 7 million deaths a year, according to the landmark Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change published in November 2019. “If people were dying because of something that was within our water or something that was within our food, there would be global outrage. But because it’s in the air and you can’t see it, it’s sort of an insidious killer,” said Nicholas Watts, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown. The World Health Organization has called it a “silent public health emergency.” Air pollution damages almost every organ in the body, according to a study published in February 2019. It has been linked to a host of health problems including asthma, lung disease, strokes, cancer and mental health problems. Very young children, as well as elderly people, are particularly vulnerable, as are those on lower incomes. There is hope, said Watts: We know the solutions, and we have the technology to replace fossil fuels. There are countries around the world already able to run 100% on renewable energy, and, he added, we also have evidence that moving away from fossil fuels makes financial sense too, as it would lift a huge burden from health care systems. Tackling air pollution brings “almost immediate and substantial effects,” a December study by experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies found, including dramatic reductions in asthma, fewer children missing school, fewer heart attacks and fewer premature births. Dealing with air pollution, said Watts, “is not an engineering question, it’s not an economic or a financial question, it is entirely a question of political choice.”
Protest: the rise of the youth climate movement: From a solitary Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish Parliament on her first school strike in August 2018, to an estimated 6 million taking to the streets across the globe during the climate strikes in September 2019 â€• the movement has grown exponentially in scale. And they’re having an impact, generating headlines and increasing awareness. However, Thunberg remains frustrated. Speaking to world leaders at the COP25 climate conference in Madrid in December, she said: “We have been striking for over a year, and basically nothing has happened. The climate crisis is still being ignored by those in power, and we cannot go on like this.” She is also trying to shift attention to more marginalized voices that are already facing the brunt of climate change impacts, such as young people from Indigenous communities. While young people talking about climate change is not new, eight-year-old Licypriya Kangujam from Manipur - the world’s youngest climate activist – says this generation of climate kids is more organized and louder: “Young people are getting so much attention that it draws more young people into the movement. They’re making demands on people old and young who have treated this as if it was a routine issue. We can expect the voices of young climate activists to get louder as we head toward climate crunch dates in 2020.”
Extreme heat: our ever hotter world: Extreme heat seems to be here to stay. The world experienced blistering temperatures in 2019, with the hottest July ever recorded. Human-caused global heating and the current failure to meaningfully cut emissions, means the heat we experience is likely to become more intense and more frequent. We see the effects in melting ice, burning forests, warming oceans and heat waves, like the one in France this summer that killed 1,500 people. Qatar has become so hot it has started air conditioning the outside, and record-breaking heat waves in India and Pakistan caused temperatures approaching 124 degrees Fahrenheit in some places. Heat is the number-one weather killer in the US now, causing up to 1,500 deaths a year, more deaths than hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. Those most at risk are the very young and the elderly, but high temperatures also disproportionately affect those already ill, athletes, pregnant women, those who work outside and people on low incomes. “It’s so insidious in that it affects pretty much most segments of society,” Rachel Licker, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. Heat can have devastating impacts on the body, including heat stress, heat stroke and links to chronic kidney disease. It exacerbates existing conditions such as heart and respiratory diseases. It can also lead to premature births, which can have a significant impact on the long-term health of the child. The solutions are twofold, says Licker: We need to cut emissions as quickly as possible to prevent further increases in extreme heat. And we need to adapt to what’s already happening by having plans on how to keep people safe. Extreme heat, she adds, “is one of the first signals that we’re really seeing of climate change and one of the things that, on the flip side, we could do a lot about very quickly.”
The Amazon in a desperate fight for survival: The Amazon rainforest is in crisis. As the smoke starts to clear from the wildfires that ripped through the biodiversity hot spot, the damage is becoming clear. Under the watch of President Jair Bolsonaro, who swept to power in 2018 on pledges to open the Amazon up to business, the Amazon has lost nearly 3,800 square miles of forest cover through July 2019. And the destruction looks set to continue as Bolsonaro works to make it easier for soy, cattle, timber and mining companies to raze swaths of forest. From January to July of 2019, deforestation rose 67% year over year. There were more than 80,000 fires in the Amazon in 2019 â€• up 75% over the previous year â€• many of which are blamed on burning rainforest to clear the land for agriculture and industry. The largest rainforest in the world is more than 2 million square miles in size, covers around 40% of South America and tracks through eight countries, with 60% in Brazil. It’s a crucial ecosystem, home to 10% of the world’s biodiversity and supporting not only the Indigenous populations who have lived there for generations, and who now face increased displacement and violence, but all of us. The rainforest stores carbon dioxide â€• almost 100 billion tons of carbon a year, equivalent to 10 years of global emissions â€• making it a vital natural buffer against climate change. This year is set to be a vital one. We will discover whether elevated levels of destruction are a blip or whether they are part of an upward trend that could seal the fate of the whole ecosystem.
Smart management of wildfires can help curb global heating: Carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions from peatland and forest wildfires contribute substantially to the global greenhouse effect, thus making floods and droughts more likely to occur. They also produce health-damaging smoke particles and black carbon. Black carbon in smoke particles can lead to warming in the middle and lower atmosphere, leading to more unpredictable weather patterns. Deposits of black carbon on snow make the snow less able to reflect sunlight back into space, further warming the planet. A paper presented by Johan Kieft, ecosystems and wildfires expert at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and Nico Oosthuizen, the markets director of Working on Fire, a brand developed by Kishugu in South Africa, was jointly presented in Brazil in October 2019 at the International Wildland Fire Conference. “Wildfires are expected to increase in many regions of the globe under a changing climate. Reducing forest-related greenhouse gas emissions is key to mitigating climate change,” says Kieft. “The forestry sector offers significant potential for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds. To capture that potential, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have developed the “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)” approach, providing incentives to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, sustainably manage forests, and conserve and enhance forest carbon stock. Countries define their own commitments to tackling climate change through national determined contributions under the 2015 Paris Agreement. “The climate change impacts of forest fires have been largely overlooked in negotiations for REDD+,” says Kieft. “They are the missing link in countries’ plans to curb global heating.” What we need to do, he says, is account for integrated fire management in these plans, i.e. in the nationally determined contributions, set out in the Convention. “Integrated fire management needs to be an integral part of a REDD+ national strategy,” says Kieft. REDD+ targets are part of the nationally determined contributions submitted by signatories of the Paris Agreement and the Convention.
Mosquito-killing fungi and a kelp crisis could be among the trends affecting living things in 2020: As conventional insecticides such as pyrethroids become less effective at killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes due to the evolution of resistance, scientists are searching for innovative alternatives. One recently developed is a mosquito-infecting fungus that has been genetically engineered to produce a toxin found in spider venom. This biological control could benefit biodiversity by working synergistically with, and so reducing the use of, conventional insecticides. However, it could also cause problems by affecting other organisms besides malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Large “forests” of kelp, a type of brown algae, grow along coastlines around the world, protecting shores from erosion and sheltering commercially important fish and other ocean life. Despite their reputation for enduring environmental stress, many of these kelp forests have been declining in recent years, possibly due to rising ocean temperatures, pollution, harvesting and non-native species. Further declines could disrupt ocean ecosystems and result in economically impactful losses.
Mini hydro meets river ecology: Small hydropower dams are becoming increasingly popular for powering local communities in Asia and elsewhere. Though they can have less land use impact than megadams, they still disrupt river flow and sediment movement and so can alter habitat in ways that affect animals and plants that inhabit rivers and streams. With more than 80,000 such dams in existence and a development push for more, there is a need for a better understanding of potential ecological impacts and what we can do to minimise harm to fish and other living things.
Assuaging the impacts of war: The United Nations’ International Law Commission recently adopted a set of draft principles aimed at protecting the environment in conflict situations. The principles not only require warring parties to prevent environmental damage but also call for including environmental restoration in the peace negotiations and repairing damage after conflicts end. With the ubiquity and damage potential of modern wars, these principles could offer a tremendous conservation benefits worldwide.
Here are some of the key international meetings planned for 2020:
15–22 February: The 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS COP13) will be held in Gandhinagar, India, with the theme: “Migratory species connect the planet and together we welcome them home.”
23–28 February: World Biodiversity Forum, Davos, Switzerland
2–6 June: UN Ocean Conference, Lisbon, Portugal. Co-hosted by the Governments of Kenya and Portugal, the Conference is expected to adopt an intergovernmental declaration on science-based and innovative areas of action, along with a list of voluntary commitments, to support implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life Below Water). The overarching theme of the Conference is “Scaling Up Ocean Action Based on Science and Innovation for the Implementation of Goal 14: Stocktaking, Partnerships and Solutions”. The meeting takes place three years after the first Ocean Conference.
11–19 June: IUCN World Conservation Congress, Marseilles, France. The congress will seek to harness the solution nature offers to global challenges.
23–28 August: Water and Climate Change: Accelerating Action, Stockholm, Sweden. This year, World Water Week will focus on science and innovation.
15 September: 75th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 75) in New York, with the first day of the high-level General Debate on 22 September. A Biodiversity Leaders’ Summit might take place at the same time and place. These will provide prime opportunities for world leaders to declare that it is no longer acceptable to continue to degrade our planet and that urgent action to restore nature starts now.
27 September: 5th anniversary of the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals. “We are currently almost five years into the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, yet we do not have sufficient data for tracking the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Jillian Campbell, a statistician leading UNEP’s work on monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals and co-author of a new study on how citizen science can help us fully achieve the goals. “In fact, we have insufficient data for tracking global progress for 68 per cent of the environment-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators. We will never be able to monitor the environmental dimension of the Goals using traditional data sources alone,” she adds.
5–10 October [tentative]: Kunming, Yunnan, China: UN Biodiversity Conference: “Convention on Biological Diversity COP 15”. COP 15 will review the achievement and delivery of the Convention’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020. It is also anticipated that the final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be taken, together with decisions on related topics including capacity-building and resource mobilization. COP 15 will also include the 10th Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Cartagena Protocol COP/MOP 10) and the 4th Meeting of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing (Nagoya Protocol COP/MOP 4). They are expected to address a series of issues related to the implementation of the Convention and its Protocols. As part of the process to develop the post-2020 framework, negotiations will be held in the context of an open-ended intersessional working group, co-chaired by Francis Ogwal (Uganda) and Basile van Havre (Canada). Meetings of the Group are scheduled in Kunming, China, from 24–28 February 2020 and 27–31 July 2020 in Colombia.
9–20 November: Glasgow, Scotland, UK: 2020 UN Climate Change Conference: “UNFCCC COP 26”. On the eve of a year in which nations are due to strengthen their Paris climate pledges, UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap Report warns that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
A number of World Days will be an opportunity to highlight the climate and biodiversity emergencies, including:
3 March – World Wildlife Day/Africa Environment Day
22 May – International Day for Biological Diversity
5 June – World Environment Day/European Union Environment Week
8 June – World Oceans Day