But last year’s decline happened because of a once-in-a-century pandemic that cratered economic activity worldwide. Nothing structural changed and emissions are expected to rebound in 2021 as COVID-19 vaccines let countries relax economic shutdowns.
The decade ahead will be critical in the fight against climate change. Countries can use COVID-19 recovery plans as a jumping off point for bold climate action, and there's no shortage of opportunities to forge a new course that regenerates the planet and puts people over profit.
“We need global solidarity, just as we need it for a successful recovery from COVID-19,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement earlier this year about the need to reboot global climate action. “In a global crisis we protect ourselves best when we protect all. We have the tools. Let us unlock them with political will.”
How Are We Going to Kickstart Global Climate Action?
Countries have to commit to cutting their emissions by roughly 7.6% annually to have a shot at keeping temperatures from rising beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. Such a significant decline will require countries to invest heavily in renewable energy, phase out and overhaul economic sectors that harm the environment, and pursue nature-based solutions that repair the planet.
COVID-19 recovery plans allow countries to begin restructuring their economies to make this transition.
3 Things to Know About Rebooting Climate Action
- The world is roughly 1.18 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times. Ocean temperatures have risen by 0.33 degrees Celsius since 1969.
- Greenhouse gas emissions have increased by about 1.5% per year for the last 10 years. The global carbon dioxide budget — the amount of carbon dioxide that countries can emit to stay within safe temperatures ranges — will be exhausted within six to 11 years if emissions continue at current rates.
- Climate change demands climate justice. The 20 richest countries are responsible for 80% of annual carbon emissions, while the poorest countries are facing the harshest climate impacts. This disparity is further exacerbated by how funds have been allocated and spent to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
How Climate Change Affects People Worldwide
Ethiopia has been experiencing historic droughts, which has led to water scarcity and food insecurity for millions.
Climate change and global warming are often confused for one another. But they’re not synonyms; global warming causes climate change. When fossil fuels are burned, they release greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere, raising the surface temperature of the earth.
When the atmosphere absorbs too much greenhouse gas, rising temperatures begin to alter marine and land ecosystems and disrupt weather patterns.
Before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were roughly 280 parts per million (PPM) molecules. For decades, climate scientists urged countries to stay under 350 PPM of carbon dioxide. In 2019, carbon dioxide levels hovered around 409 PPM.
The effect of this saturation has been nothing less than what scientists predicted.
The past decade was the hottest in recorded history, with 2020 coming in as the second warmest year to date. For outdoor laborers, rising temperatures make day-to-day life more difficult, but they also unleash deadlier heat waves that cook cities for weeks on end. In wealthy communities in countries like the US, heat waves usually mean time in the pool, cranked-up air conditioning, and chunks of ice in a drink. In poor communities in countries like Pakistan, they often mean electricity blackouts, faucets running dry, and mattresses soaked through with sweat. In 2015, more than 1,000 Pakistanis died in a heat wave in Karachi.
No regions have warmed faster than the Arctic and Antarctica. Temperatures routinely climb more than 30 degrees Celsius above normal at both the North and South Pole, where ice turns to water and absorbs more heat, causing even more ice to melt. This positive feedback loop has been accelerating. In fact, scientists recently determined that global ice loss has reached “worst-case scenario” predictions.
There’s another feedback loop happening, too. Because the ocean absorbs the majority of excess atmospheric heat, it’s been warming up, putting pressure on ice sheets to melt. To put the warming of the ocean into perspective, scientists calculated that it absorbs the equivalent heat of five Hiroshima atomic bombs every second.
The impacts of melting ice and the warming ocean are visible everywhere.
So much water and heat have poured into the ocean that sea levels have risen by approximately 24 centimeters. Think of a sink filling up, spilling onto the counter. Coastal cities from Miami to Mumbai now contend with more severe flooding events. Not surprisingly, the people most affected are those who can’t afford to move away — people living in poverty. In Indonesia, sinking land and worsening floods have gotten so bad that the government decided to relocate its capital to the far north, but it’s unclear if those living in slums will be brought along. For many island nations, on the other hand, rising sea levels mean being wiped off the map altogether.
Storms have become both more frequent and intense because of the rising and warming sea. Both Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Cyclone Idai in 2019 seemed to carry an additional punch when they hit shore and ended up causing immense casualties and lasting infrastructure damage. Between 2000 and 2019, 480,000 people were killed by extreme weather events strengthened by climate change, while millions of other people are displaced from their homes by climate change each year.
Climate change impacts every facet of life, but it particularly affects agriculture and water availability. Smallholder farmers who account for 90% of the world’s 570 million farms have been hit hard by droughts, extreme rainfall, and pests that stay around for longer.
Sources of water that have existed for millennia are beginning to run dry. By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people may struggle to get water. Already, urban planners in Cape Town and La Paz are searching for ways to replace vanishing water. And that’s not even considering continent-wide repercussions. The Himalayan glaciers supply freshwater to hundreds of millions of people, and they’re melting twice as fast as they were in 2000.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, 2020 may have been remembered for its environmental disasters — after all, it began with fires in eastern Australia so intense they burned 45 times as much land in New South Wales as a typical fire season.
What’s Being Done to Combat Climate Change?
A woman holds up a sign with a message written in Portuguese: "Justice for Climate, Now!" during a protest in front of the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Sept. 25, 2020.
The Paris climate agreement, newly influential following the return of the US, is the framework through which countries commit to climate action. Every five years, countries pledge, on a voluntary basis, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Action Tracker reports that the latest round of pledges puts countries “within striking distance” of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius but noted that current emissions levels make a rise of 2.1 degrees Celsius to 3 degrees Celsius more likely.
A 3-degree Celsius increase would erase most coastal cities. World leaders have known about this risk for decades but have failed to muster the political will to phase out fossil fuels. That’s in part because of the political power of the fossil fuel industry, which nets itself more than $5 trillion in annual subsidies. Some of these subsidies go to reducing the cost of energy for people living in poverty, so countries would have to expand social safety nets if they were to get rid of them. But experts argue that fossil fuel subsidies can instead be used to invest in renewable forms of energy, energy-efficiency, and land and marine conservation.
Current rates of climate financing need a serious boost. The World Bank predicts that $90 trillion in climate financing is needed for the next decade, but countries only spent $530 billion on climate action in 2017. While the World Bank estimate may seem like a lot, the UN estimated that $1.8 trillion in climate adaptation measures would prevent $7.1 trillion in climate costs.
A sense of urgency seems to be gathering following years of protests and undeniable climate change. In 2020, renewable energy capacity grew by a record amount, a surge that can continue if countries increase subsidies and fund more projects, according to the International Energy Agency.
Efforts to protect and heal the planet are also gaining momentum. More than 50 countries committed to the UN’s goal of protecting 30% of land and marine areas by 2030, an effort that would draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions — protected forests, restored swamplands, improved soil management — can perform 37% of the work needed to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.
Keeping temperatures within a manageable range is ultimately a race against time because carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for decades, locking in climate change once absorbed.
Acknowledging this daunting reality, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that staying under 1.5 degrees Celsius all but requires yet-to-be-invented methods for sucking greenhouse gas emissions out of the air.
How the World Can Take Action
Young people attend a 'Fridays For Future' protest rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, Sept. 25, 2020.
The road to 2030 can be mapped by the COVID-19 green recovery plans that policymakers worldwide are currently crafting. That’s why Global Citizen has launched its Recovery Plan for the World, which will tackle contributors to climate change as well as its consequences, so that the billions of people around the world who rely on the environment for their food, jobs, and well-being can live full, prosperous lives.
Climate action in any form must be informed by climate justice — the idea that the most vulnerable communities be prioritized. Global Citizen is calling on countries with the highest emissions to set the bar for emissions reductions, while also allocating funds and resources to climate efforts in low-income countries.
Countries have to essentially cut their emissions by 7.6% annually to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold — a pace faster than the emissions decline caused by the pandemic. While no country is following this trajectory, more than 110 have pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 in a growing sign of solidarity.
For this effort, the Green Climate Fund is channeling billions in investments to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. In the years ahead, adaptation costs alone could rise to $350 billion annually. The countries most responsible for climate change, such as the US and those in the EU, should pay for the bulk of these costs.
Achieving the UN’s biodiversity targets for 2030 will require countries to set aside and protect large swaths of land and marine spaces currently in-use or identified for development. Such ambitious conservation targets clash with the current rate of resource extraction. As a result, countries will have to reimagine economic priorities to support sectors that have minimal environmental impact.
More broadly, economies have to be decarbonized, meaning they can no longer add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than is being offset. Achieving this goal requires the participation of the private sector, especially Fortune Global 500 companies, which represent more than $33.3 trillion in wealth.
Currently, less than a quarter of the world’s biggest companies have committed to becoming carbon neutral or developed emissions reduction goals. In the years ahead, these companies can help countries reach their emissions goals through investments in renewable energy, while also transforming their supply chains and production models to reduce their environmental impact.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the public and private sector can act decisively to confront an existential threat.
Now, that same urgency has to be applied to the climate crisis.
You can join us by taking action here right now to support the Recovery Plan for the World, to protect the planet and kickstart a global COVID-19 recovery.