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Climate Change Tracker: 10 things we learned about climate change in 2020

2020 may go down in history as the year of covid-19, but it was also a massive year for climate change. Here are 10 things that Lounge wrote about

Climate Change is approaching dangerous levels. (Photo: Istockphoto)
Climate Change is approaching dangerous levels. (Photo: Istockphoto)

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Reporting on climate change can be detrimental to your mental health. Most of that stems from horror and frustration. Horror at the scale of the impacts of climate change, and frustration at the inactivity of the major carbon-emitting nations to do something about this, beyond making pious pledges.

Although 2020 will go down in history as the year of the pandemic (or even year one of the pandemic, if you’re into dark humour), this was also the year that the effects of climate change seemed to go into overdrive. Just 5 years since the landmark Paris Agreement, we are already seeing wild impacts of a warming planet. Just take India, for example. In the same year, the country saw a heatwave, three major cyclones (one of which was a supercyclone), massive monsoon floods as well as erratic rainfall. Lounge reported each of these impacts, and also spoke to scientists, climate policy experts, activists and economists in search of answers. Here are 10 things we learned about the climate crisis this year.

2020 is one of the hottest years on record

In early December, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a report that 2020 is on track to become one of the three hottest years on record. In this dubious achievement, 2020 will be joining 2019 and 2016 (currently the hottest-ever year). 2020 is currently running a close second to 2016, despite this year being a La Niña year, which would mean generally cooler conditions across the globe. This record also means that the last six years (2015-2020) are the six hottest years on record. What’s more, the mean global temperature this year was 1.2 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times. We’re inching ever closer to the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, beyond which climate change impacts will begin to approach extremely dangerous levels. Read the full story here.

The world is heating up faster than we thought

Speaking of the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, an earlier WMO report said that there’s a 70% chance that multiple months in the next five years will breach this mark. If that wasn’t bad enough, a new, independent report in mid-December stated that the world’s annual mean global temperature may hit the 1.5 degree Celsius mark faster than we thought, as early as 2027. Using a different climate model than the one used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the report concluded that, if anything, the IPCC’s warming estimates are conservative. Read the full story here.

The majority of India is at risk from climate change impacts

As noted earlier, in 2020, India got a taste of pretty much every aspect of its potential climate risks this year. To drive this point home, a report published earlier this month concluded that as much as 75% of India’s districts are at risk. These risks are multi-dimensional in nature, including floods, droughts, cyclones and even coldwaves. The report also noted that over the past 50 years, the frequency of extreme weather events in India have risen. And that they will continue to rise. Read the full story here.

The rising risks of cyclones hitting Indian coasts

Some 177 million people live in India’s coastal districts. While rising sea levels due to global warming is a creeping threat, of greater immediate importance is the rise in the number and intensity of tropical cyclones making landfall. This year saw three major cyclones hitting India: cyclone Amphan hit coastal Bengal on 20 May; cyclone Nisarga hit coastal Maharashtra on 3 June; and cyclone Nivar hit coastal Tamil Nadu on 25 November. Although varying in strength (Amphan was a supercyclone and caused the greatest damage), all three had something in common. Higher than usual ocean surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This high temperature is directly due to the fact that since 1970, the global ocean has absorbed 90% of the excess heat generated due to man-made climate change. This causes marine heatwaves that bleach coral reefs and also lend additional power and ferocity to cyclones.

Extreme heat is making India unlivable

The single biggest threat from climate change that is facing India is that of extreme heat. This means a steady rise in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, but also that of the most deadly variety: the humid heatwave. But that’s not all. As the world heats up, India is also seeing a rise in the phenomenon of chronic heat, where more and more days in the year are uncomfortably hot. In September, Lounge did an in-depth cover story on this threat, speaking to a number of scientists and planners on the spectre of extreme heat that is stalking India. Read the full story here.

G20 nations, including India, are betting on fossil fuels for a post-covid economic recovery

When countries around the world went into lockdown and suspended all economic activity to limit the spread of the coronavirus, it resulted in two things. The first was a massive economic downturn, and the second, a brief window of time when new global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions nosedived. This led to plenty of commentary about how this presented the world with an opportunity to restart the engine of growth while relying on clean, renewable energy. However, as early as July, it was clear that the major economies of the world (the G20 nations, which together accounted for 75% of global emissions in 2010), were betting big on fossil fuels to kickstart economic recovery. Of these countries, India too is one of the guilty parties. In June, the union government announced the auction of coal blocks for commercial mining. This year, the government has also sought to strip away the effectiveness of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA). If successful, this will mark a major blow against India’s forests, a major bulwark against climate change impacts.

India has the answers it needs to its climate challenges, if only the government listens

Between May and August, as the host of the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast (one of the top podcasts of 2020 in India according to podcast platform JioSaavn), I spoke to 12 key Indian voices on the climate crisis. From authors to scientists to policy experts, each of them had nuanced views and solutions when it comes to India’s multiple climate challenges. The one thing that became clear over the year is that there’s no dearth of expertise and knowledge in the country. The question then is if the central government and state governments are willing to listen to them to shape India’s climate policy. Sadly it seems that the India’s opportunistic policies (trying to balance more fossil fuel energy with greater ambition in renewable energy) are largely steering the country in the opposite direction. Listen to the two seasons of the podcast here.

The Earth is fast losing all its ice and snow

In August, a new report highlighted just how much ice the Earth has lost in the past few decades due to global heating. Between 1994-2017, the report said, the planet has lost a whopping 28 trillion tonnes of ice. This has raised global sea levels by 35mm. In that same time, the rate of ice loss has also increased. In the 24 years up to 2017, the rate of ice loss increased by 49% as compared to the 1990s and earlier. Mind you, this is when the world is only 1.1 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times. The hardest hit have been the Arctic ice and the Greenland ice sheet, but the biggest repository of ice on earth, the Antarctic ice-sheet, is also melting. There was worse immediate news in the Arctic Circle this year as the region saw a record-shattering heatwave in June. According to new research published this year, most polar bear populations in the Arctic will disappear by 2100.

The world’s governments have spectacularly failed to protect global biodiversity

It isn’t just polar bears that are in peril. According to new scientific research published in June, over 500 species of vertebrate are teetering on the brink of extinction. Each of these species has less than 1,000 individuals left, and will in all likelihood be gone in the next 20 years. The report also noted that over 400 vertebrate species went extinct in the past 100 years. We are using our greater industrial and technological prowess to lay waste to larger and larger swathes of global biodiversity. According to scientists, species extinctions that in normal evolutionary time frames would have taken 10,000 years are now happening in a century. As if to drive home the point, the UN’s fifth Global Biodiversity Report, published in September, reported that the world’s governments had not met any of the 20 biodiversity targets agreed upon in 2010. “Humanity is waging a war against nature," said the UN Secretary General António Guterres. He is correct.

Global disasters have doubled in the last 20 years due to climate change

Quite fittingly in a year of cyclones, hurricanes, forest fires locust invasions and disastrous flooding, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) released a report in October called The Human Cost of Disasters. The report noted that between 2000 and 2019, there were 7,348 disaster events around the world, as opposed to 4,212 disasters between 1980 and 1999. The number of climate-related disasters increased from 3,656 (1980-1999) to 6,681 (2000-2019). India features prominently in that report, as the country with the third highest number of disaster events in that period. 

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