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With World Closing in on Paris Warming Limit, UN Report Makes Case for 'Transformational Action' to Remake Global Economy

"Today, the world is at a crucial juncture and we must choose the right path to a green recovery for a better future," says U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. 

A man assesses the damage caused by floods after heavy rains hit the Al Lamab neighborhood of Khartoum, Sudan on September 8, 2020. (Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A man assesses the damage caused by floods after heavy rains hit the Al Lamab neighborhood of Khartoum, Sudan on September 8, 2020. (Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

With the planet approaching the warming limit established as a goal by the 2015 Paris Agreement, a new United Nations report released Wednesday warns that the globe could reach a catastrophic temperature increase unless bold steps are taken to "turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future" characterized by a more just and sustainable economy and environment. 

"Now is the moment to reconsider the economic models that have failed so many and contributed to the climate crisis."
—António Guterres, U.N. Secretary-General

The United in Science 2020 Report (pdf) is the product of a joint effort led by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to aggregate the latest updates on climate science. A group of six global partner organizations contributed chapters that provide a comprehensive evaluation of our Earth system. 

Global Atmosphere Watch finds that concentrations of major greenhouse gases (GHG) continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. While "overall emissions reductions in 2020 will lead to a small reduction in the annual increase of atmospheric concentrations of long-lived GHG," the report states, "sustained reductions in emissions are required to stabilize global warming." 

Emissions in 2020 are "estimated to decline by 4% to 7% compared to 2019 levels," the Global Carbon Project writes, but last year's "global fossil CO2 emissions reached a new record high... 62% higher than in 1990."

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) expects the five-year period from 2016-2020 to be "the warmest on record with an average global mean surface temperature of 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era (1850-1900)."

That warming has been accompanied by the accelerated loss of Arctic sea-ice, which has increased sea-level rise, as well as the heightened risk of unusual regional rainfall patterns, with some areas "experiencing increasing drought-related risks and others increased risks associated with heavy rainfall." 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that changes "from the top of the mountains to the depths of the oceans" are altering "life-sustaining systems... with cascading effects for ecosystems and human security."

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Another key finding of the WMO is that in the five-year period 2020-2024, there is a 24% chance that the annual mean global near surface temperature could temporarily exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the threshold set by the Paris climate accord.  

The U.N. Environment Program estimates that it is still possible to "limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century," but emphasizes that "transformational action can no longer be postponed."

In his foreword to the report, Guterres highlights that even though emissions declined slightly during the "peak of the pandemic confinement measures... short-term lockdowns are no substitute for the sustained climate action that is needed."

Ahead of the release of the report, the U.N. official said last week that temperatures in 2020 may rival those in 2019, the second hottest year on record. He argued, "Now is the moment to reconsider the economic models that have failed so many and contributed to the climate crisis."

On social media, the WMO made the same point on Wednesday saying: "Climate change hasn't stopped for Covid-19. Indicators and impacts are increasing. CO2 concentrations are at record levels and the decline in emissions looks to be temporary."

"We need to grow back better," the WMO argued. 

Friends of the Earth Scotland's climate and energy campaigner Caroline Rance said in a statement:

This report should act as a wake-up call as to the scale of action required to reduce emissions, in a just way, to deliver our fair share of the Paris Agreement. There is no time to waste in taking the concerted climate action that will help us create good green jobs as we transition away from fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and build a fairer economy.

Last week, Guterres argued that "we are at a true turning point for people and planet." Continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure "makes no economic sense," he said, given that coal plants "will soon become stranded assets." 

As Common Dreams reported, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized the coronavirus relief package introduced by Senate Republicans Tuesday for proposing "$161 million in corporate welfare to the coal industry during a climate emergency."

The GOP's proposed bill directly opposes Guterres' plea for countries to "commit to carbon neutrality before 2050."

Two weeks ago, the U.N. official noted that "both Covid-19 and the climate crisis have raised fundamental questions about how to ensure the health and well-being of people and planet." In a video shared on social media, he stressed that "as governments mobilize trillions of dollars to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, their decisions will have climate consequences for decades."

"These choices can either propel climate action forward," he continued, "or set us back years, which science says we cannot afford."

The global leader urged governments to invest in green jobs, refuse to bail out polluting industries, end fossil fuel subsidies, account for climate risks in economic and political decision-making, cooperate, and "most important, leave no one behind."

"Today, the world is at a crucial juncture," Guterres stated, "and we must choose the right path to a green recovery for a better future."

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