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World ‘way off track’ on climate targets, UN experts warn after five hottest years on record

‘Urgent and far-reaching’ action needed to avoid missing Paris agreement’s global warming limit, says World Meteorological Organisation

Chris Baynes
Tuesday 10 March 2020 18:11 GMT
UN secretary general denounces 'lack of political will' ahead of key climate change conference

The world is "way off track" from meeting targets to limit global warming as the signs of a climate emergency grow more damaging, the United Nations has warned.

Increasing heat, accelerating sea level rises, and extreme weather in 2019 were all indications of the impact of failing to rein in carbon emissions, said a report compiled by the UN's World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

The agency warned urgent and far-reaching climate action was needed if the world was to limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C, as required under the international Paris Agreement on climate change.

Last year was the second hottest year on record, with a global average temperature of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels, the report confirms.

The years from 2015 to 2019 were the five warmest on record and the last decade was the hottest since records began in the 19th century.

Each decade since the 1980s has been hotter than any preceding decade stretching back to 1850, according to the WMO’s report, which has input from national meteorological services, international experts, scientific institutions and other UN agencies.

Those trends have continued in 2020. January was the warmest on record globally and Europe saw “by far” its hottest winter to date, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

New temperature highs have been reported in Antarctica, along with large-scale ice melts and a fracturing glacier which will have "repercussions for sea level rise", WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas warned.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries are expected to increase their action this year to tackle greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

In a foreword to the report, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: "We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5C or 2C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for.

"This report outlines the latest science and illustrates the urgency for far-reaching climate action."

Prof Taalas said: "Given that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase, the warming will continue."

He added it was an only matter of time before the world a new record hot year – with predictions it will come within five years.

Alongside temperature increases, rainfall changes are having a major impact on several countries and sea levels are rising at an increasing pace, exposing coastal areas and islands to a greater risk of flooding and submersion, the report said.

Preliminary data indicates greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continued to rise in 2019, and carbon emissions from global fossil fuels grew 0.6 per cent last year.

The report detailed the harmful impacts on people and wildlife caused by surging temperatures across the world.

There were two major heatwaves in Europe, in June and July, with new national temperature records set in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

Climate change is facilitating the spread of dengue fever, with around half the world population now at risk of infection and a large increase in cases in 2019, the report noted.

World hunger is on the rise again, and an estimated 22 million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes by events such as floods and storms, the WMO added.

The contiguous US – excluding Alaska, Hawaii and other islands – experienced the highest 12-month rainfall on record from July 2018 to June 2019, and flooding cost the country an estimated $20bn (£15bn) last year.

Drought or low rainfall hit many parts of the world, including Australia, which also saw its hottest year and December on record and an exceptionally long and severe season of wildfires.

Some parts of the Arctic also burned in wildfires – an extremely rare occurrence – and sea ice in the region continued to decline.

The Greenland ice sheet lost 329 billion tonnes of ice in 2019, well above the average for recent years, and glaciers continue to melt.

Sea levels rose to record highs last year, and at least 84 per cent of the oceans experienced at least one marine heatwave.

Warming ocean temperatures, along with more acidic water and lower oxygen levels, are having an impact on marine wildlife and habitats such as coral, the report said.

Another report published by climate think tank Ember this week warned countries must "dramatically accelerate" a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy to have any chance of meeting Paris Agreement targets.

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