Alarming new records set for four indicators showing humans making ‘planetary-scale changes’

“The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe,” said Secretary-General António Guterres

Saphora Smith
Climate Correspondent
Wednesday 18 May 2022 13:45
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'Climate report is a dismal litany of humanity’s failure': UN secretary-general

Alarming new records were set for greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification in 2021 offering further evidence of how humans are changing planet Earth, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

The findings show that human activities are causing “planetary-scale changes” on land, in the ocean and in the atmosphere, with harmful long-lasting implications for sustainable development and ecosystems, according to the World Meteorological Organization which produces the report.

“Today’s State of the Climate report is a dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message on Tuesday, describing the new records as “alarming.”

“The global energy system is broken and bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe,” he said, adding that fossil fuels are a “dead end” environmentally and economically and that the only susitanable future is one based on renewable energy.

The report, which takes contributions from experts around the world, and complements the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’ most recent assessment report, will be used as an official document for the UN Climate Change negotiations, known as COP27, that will take place in Egypt later this year.

It found that much of the ocean experienced at least one “strong” marine heatwave at some point in 2021. The upper 200m depth of the ocean continued to warm last year, and is expected to continue to do so in the future - a change that is irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales, it said.

The global mean sea level also reached a new record high in 2021, after increasing at an average of 4.5mm per year over the period of 2013-2021, according to the report. This is more than double the rate between 1993 and 2002 and is mainly due to the accelerated loss of ice mass from ice sheets, it said. The sea level rise has major implications for coastal communities and increases their vulnerability to tropical cyclones, it added.

Meanwhile, the ocean surface PH level is now the lowest it has been for at least 26,000 years, reducing the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and threatening ecosystems, according to the report. It explains that oceans absorb around 23 per cent of the annual emissions of human-caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which then reacts with seawater, leading to ocean acidification.

Finally, greenhouse gas concentrations reached a new global high in 2020, and data from specific locations indicate that they have continued to increase in 2021 and the early part of 2022, according to the report.

“Our climate is changing before our eyes,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, adding that heat trapped by human-induced greenhouse gases will warm the planet for many generations to come. “Sea level rise, ocean heat and acidification will continue for hundreds of years unless means to remove carbon from the atmosphere are invented.”

“Some glaciers have reached the point of no return and this will have long-term repercussions in a world in which more than 2 billion people already experience water stress,” he added.

The report found that extreme weather led to hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses and wrought a heavy-toll on human lives, triggering shocks to food and water security that have already intensified in 2022. The report also confirmed that the past seven years have been the warmest on record and the average global temperature in 2021 was about 1.1 degrees celsius above the levels prior to the industrial revolution.

Last year was “only” one of the seven warmest because of a La Niña event - or cold event - at the start and end of the year, which had a temporary cooling effect but did not reverse the overall trend of rising temperatures, it added. A La Niña, or “the girl,” event sees episodes of cooler than average sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific, during which sea temperatures can fall to 3-5 degrees celsius, according to the Met Office.

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