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Top ten insights in climate science from the past year

A report published today by Future Earth highlights the most important findings within climate science in 2020, as selected by 57 leading global researchers.

The selected insights reveal the extent of aggressive emission cuts needed to meet the Paris Agreement, and suggest that only by seizing the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19 can governments hope to get on a Paris-compatible emissions pathway. The findings are intended to help inform urgent collective action on the ongoing climate crisis.

“The latest insights from climate science underline the urgent need to build sustainable and resilient human societies. Most critically, the report identifies opportunities for action that can be taken now, underpinned by new perspectives on climate change economics, governance and tools for climate litigation.”

Professor Eleanor Fisher, Head of Research, Nordic Africa Institute, and Leader of the Transformations to Sustainability programme’s ‘Gold Matters’ project

The report alleviates some worries that the climate system would be more sensitive to carbon dioxide than previously assumed, which had been raised as results of the latest climate models published from 2019 onwards, but it also excludes the range of low climate sensitivity. This means that scenarios with low CO2 mitigation are highly unlikely to deliver on the Paris Agreement targets. The report also points out a number of growing risk factors, including emissions from permafrost, concerns about weakening carbon uptake in land ecosystems, and climate change impacts on freshwater and mental health.

“This series is a critical part of our mission to get the latest science to decision-makers in an accessible format to help accelerate transitions to sustainability. Worsening wildfires, intensifying storms, and even the ongoing pandemic are all signals that our relationship with nature is deteriorating, with deadly consequences.”

Wendy Broadgate, Future Earth Global Hub Director, Sweden

The report will be presented today to Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The 10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020 report was prepared by a consortium of 57 leading researchers from 21 countries. It is part of a series of reports published annually since 2017 as a partnership of Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP).

“To cope with future climate change, we require detailed knowledge about the functioning of the climate system, and actionable information has to be developed about regional to local climate change and its impacts. This report provides several examples of important progress in both categories.”

Detlef Stammer, Professor at the University of Hamburg and Joint Scientific Committee Chair of the World Climate Research Programme

The top ten insights in climate science from 2020 are:

  1. Improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide strengthen support for ambitious emission cuts to meet Paris Agreement: The climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide – how much the temperature rises with a certain increase of emissions – is now better understood. This new knowledge indicates that moderate emission reductions are less likely to meet the Paris climate targets than previously anticipated.
  2. Emissions from thawing permafrost likely to be worse than expected: Emissions of greenhouse gases from permafrost will be larger than earlier projections because of abrupt thaw processes, which are not yet included in global climate models.
  3. Tropical forests may have reached peak uptake of carbon: Land ecosystems currently draw down 30% of human CO2 emissions due to a CO2 fertilization effect on plants. Deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are causing these to level off as a carbon sink.
  4. Climate change will severely exacerbate the water crisis: New empirical studies show that climate change is already causing extreme precipitation events (floods and droughts), and these extreme settings in turn lead to water crises. The impact of these water crises is highly unequal, which is caused by and exacerbates gender, income, and sociopolitical inequality.
  5. Climate change can profoundly affect our mental health: Cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress. The promotion and conservation of blue and green space within urban planning policies as well as the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity in natural environments have health co-benefits and provide resilience.
  6. Governments are not seizing the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19: Governments all over the world are mobilizing more than US$12 trillion for COVID-19 pandemic recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed for a Paris-compatible emissions pathway are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion.
  7. COVID-19 and climate change demonstrates the need for a new social contract: The pandemic has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks.
  8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth would jeopardize the Paris Agreement: A COVID-19 recovery strategy based on growth first and sustainability second is likely to fail the Paris Agreement.
  9. Electrification in cities pivotal for just sustainability transitions: Urban electrification can be understood as a sustainable way to reduce poverty by providing over a billion people with modern types of energy, but also as a way to substitute clean energy for existing services that drive climate change and harmful local pollution.
  10. Going to court to defend human rights can be an essential climate action: Through climate litigation, legal understandings of who or what is a rights- holder are expanding to include future, unborn generations, and elements of nature, as well as who can represent them in court.

While the report confirms the continued amplification of key environmental impacts, it also points to opportunities that arise from new insights in climate change economics and governance, and the possibility of using climate litigation.

Follow the report launch live from 17:00 CET:

2021 will be a critical year to act if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement targets and preserve humanity’s critical climate niche.

We will be following the debate and bringing together expert views from the science and policy communities in our ongoing series on making 2021 a year for real transformation.

Find out more about the top ten insights in climate science:

The International Science Council is a co-sponsor of Future Earth and the World Climate Research Programme.

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