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Future Earth Report Presented at UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid

The “10 New Insights in Climate Science,” was presented to UNFCCCs Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa and the Chilean Minister of Science Andrés Couve Correa at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) in Madrid, 6 December, 2019, and distributed to negotiators and journalists.

The report highlights the most recent advances over the last 12 months in the scientific understanding of the drivers, effects, and impacts of climate change, as well as societal responses. It is the third annual publication by Future Earth and The Earth League, two major international organizations representing networks of global sustainability scientists. It summarizes recent Earth-system science, policy, public health, and economic research.

“The key insight from the latest climate science is that the Paris climate target of limiting global warming to 1.5oC, is a planetary boundary we pass at our own peril, putting all future generations at risk,” says Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-author of the report.

“Earth observations show that big systems with known tipping points are already now, at 1oC warming, on the move toward potentially irreversible change, such as accelerated melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, drying of rainforests, and thawing of Arctic permafrost,” continues Rockström.

Each of the 10 chapters have been reviewed by some of the world’s leading scientists to provide a trustworthy, accurate, and unbiased summary of the latest climate science.

These insights come after two landmark reports in 2019 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change and Land and Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, as well as “United in Science,” a scientific synthesis by the world’s leading climate science organizations released in September 2019.

Future Earth is governed by the International Science Council (ISC), Belmont Forum of funding agencies, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations University (UNU), the World Meteorological Organization, and the Science and Technology in Society (STS) forum.

1. The world is not on track

Despite increasing drivers of reduced emissions, such as growth in green energy, institutions divesting from fossil fuels, and some countries phasing out coal power, the fossil industry is still growing and global leaders aren’t yet committing to the necessary emissions cuts. We are not on track to reach the Paris Agreement.

2. Climate change is faster and stronger than expected

The pace of contemporary rise in greenhouse gas concentrations is unprecedented in climate history over the past 66 million years, and methane concentrations are now at a record high of 257 percent of pre-industrial levels. Observations show signs of continuing warming. A global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels could be reached already in the year 2030, instead of 2040 as is the mean projection of IPCC.

Sea-level rise is accelerating and is now three times higher than the average for the 20th century. Relatively stable components of the earth system also show signs of accelerated degradation, such as Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which if destabilized, could lead to severe, abrupt ice loss from ice-sheet margins and would thereby critically accelerate sea-level rise.

3. Climate change leaves no mountain summit behind

Mountains are at the forefront of climate change impact. Glaciers, snow, ice, and permafrost are diminishing in mountains, which will influence water availability and will increase natural hazards such as landslides and rockfalls, potentially affecting more than a billion people worldwide. Climate change will also irreversibly affect mountain ecosystems and their biodiversity, reducing the area of biodiversity hotspots, causing species to go extinct, and compromising the capacity of mountains to provide key ecosystem services. We should recognize that indigenous and local knowledge in mountain regions plays a key role in conservation and management.

4. Forests are under threat, with global consequences

The world’s forests are a major carbon dioxide sink, absorbing about a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Yet human-driven forest fires have been reducing these sinks, and climate change globally amplifies wild forest fires. Increases in fires are observed in Western U.S. and Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Australia as a result of prolonged drought. Huge emissions have been observed from land changes in western Ethiopia and western tropical Africa. Loss of forests affects both the local and global climate. Fighting deforestation and encouraging reforestation, along with sustainable forest management and other natural climate solutions, are important and cost-effective options for reduced net emissions.

5. Weather extremes – a “new normal” in 2019

Climate change is forcing us to reconsider the notion of an extreme event. What was once considered unlikely or rare — both in terms of the intensity and frequency — is becoming part of a “new normal.” Record-breaking extreme weather and climate events have continued to dominate the headlines in 2019, with the impact of such events going beyond mere record setting and environmental damage: the material and human costs are especially high. Increasingly, societies will have to adapt to compound events, which can amplify the risk of severe impacts significantly, and cascading events, which do not leave enough time for societies to recover before the next event happens. Persistent rainfall extremes and heatwaves, unusual weather patterns due to a changing jet stream in the northern hemisphere, as well as warmer and higher seas will all affect regions across the world in different ways. Ambitious mitigation can curb risks if we stay at 1.5°C warming, but regionally, dangerous levels will be reached.

6. Biodiversity – threatened guardian of earth’s resilience

Biodiversity on land, coral reefs, and fish populations will see losses between 14 and 99 percent at 1 to 2°C warming. At the same time, biodiversity is a key feature of stable ecosystems, providing – among many other services to humanity – carbon stocks and sinks and thereby guarding the earth system’s resilience against the disruption from anthropogenic carbon emissions. Therefore, it is urgent to put a halt to ecosystem degradation.

7. Climate change threatens food security and the health of hundreds of millions

Undernutrition will be the greatest health risk of climate change with declining agricultural productivity, particularly in drylands in Africa and high mountain regions of Asia and South America. In addition, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional quality of most cereal crops. Climate change is already affecting food production by reducing agricultural yields, especially in the tropics, and will increase loss and damage throughout the food system. Global fish stocks are set to further decline with climate change, and is an additional pressure on already declining stocks of fish and shellfish, important sources of human dietary protein and nutrients.

8. Most vulnerable and poor hardest hit by climate change

Failure to address and adapt to climate change will have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people, mainly the very poorest, and will hinder development in developing countries. While all of us will be affected by climate change, the poor are more vulnerable to drought, flooding, high temperatures, and other natural disasters with low capacity to adapt. As the frequency of natural and climatic hazards increases, escaping poverty will be particularly difficult, even with progress on the SDGs.

9. Equity and equality pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation

Social justice is an important factor for societal resilience in the face of climate change, vital for both local and global cooperation to facilitate mitigation and adaptation. High inequality has been identified as a contributing factor when resource depletion has driven civilizations to collapse in the past, and threatens the ability of our current civilization to survive climate change and other environmental changes. The success of climate policy also depends on social acceptance, with justice, fairness, and the equitable distribution of costs important for public support of policy and avoiding nationalist sentiments.

10. Time may have come for social tipping points on climate action

Public opinion polls indicate that an increasing number of citizens in various countries are seriously concerned about climate change, and recent massive civil protests are getting close to the thresholds where we could expect “tipping” of some socio-economic systems. However, policy measures need to accompany behavioural change — and deep and long-term transformations driven by a great diversity of actors are needed to meet the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

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“10 New Insights in Climate Science 2019” 

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