For many of us, 2020 was the year of COVID-19. But what did it mean for climate change?
Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic trumped the news and tied much of our collective and individual attention. People worldwide lost income, livelihoods or loved ones. And most of us lost a fundamental sense of certainty as we stomached the realisation that things formely taken for granted are in fact not: being with our elderly relatives, mingling with fellow humans or just moving around freely.
The biggest loss of 2020, however, may be one that is not related to COVID-19: 2020 was the first year of the decade that climate scientists say we have left to avert potentially catastrophic climate change, by limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius[i]. To achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emission from human activity needs to reduce by 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030[ii]. Yet, we did not only fail to achieve these reductions in 2020, global emissions increased by about 0.2% compared to 2019[iii], this even despite a dip in emission during the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions[iv].
At the same time, the world’s surface temperatures in 2020 have been confirmed as tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record[v]. In 2020 we felt the devastating forebearers of climate-change impacts, from the wildfires in the US, Australia and Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands [vi], [vii], [viii], to locust swarms on the Horn of Africa[ix], [x] to reports that the Arctic Sea ice sheet could disappear entirely by 2035[xi]. While these phenomena may just be regular occurrences, their intensity and extent are unprecedented and have been linked to the rising global temperatures.
As individuals, especially those living in developed countries, we drive greenhouse gas emissions through our consumption. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear, the way we heat and cool our homes, how we get to work, school and to shops, where and how we travel; even how we browse the internet[xii]. By becoming conscious of the effects our behaviour and habits have on climate, we can take action and make choices to lower our emissions.
But to achieve large scale impact and reach our global warming targets, governments and businesses need to step up, by creating infrastructure and low-cost, climate friendly alternatives. It was UN Secretary-General António Guterres who in 2019 coined the term ‘Decade of Action’[xiii]. He linked it to a wider agenda than climate change, though climate change may be the most pressing issue that our current generation has to solve, for its own sake and that of generations to come. In his vision of the Decade of Action, Guterres focused on political action. Business leaders, NGOs, academic and public figures have since adopted the idea for their spheres of influence, resulting in initiatives such as the Decade of Action documentary film[xiv] and the Prince’s of Wales Sustainable Market Initiative[xv]. But in 2021, COVID-19 continues to drive government and business agendas as a much more immediate threat to society, ostensibly leaving climate change to wait.
While it might be difficult to see a future without COVID-19, the ability of governments and businesses to act, adapt and mobilise resources in the face of an imminent threat was demonstrated impressively in the pandemic and should become an example for climate action. 10 trillion USD were mobilised by governments worldwide in COVID-19 stimulus packages in the first six months of 2020 alone[xvi]. For comparison: A 2019 report by the Global Commission on Adaptation found that adapting to climate change and investing 1.8 trillion USD in five areas from 2020 to 2030 could generate 7.1 trillion USD in total global net benefits[xvii]; and a 90% worldwide eradication of malaria over the same timeframe would cost, according to WHO, 34 billion USD – 0.3% of the 2020 COVID-19 bill[xviii]. These two comparisons alone show that it might be possible to make the bigger bolder investments necessary to dampen climate change in the next decade.
So what do we need to do to take effective climate action, individually, in the corporate world and politically? The answer is simple and long-known: We need to reduce our net carbon emissions to zero by 2030. First and foremost that means that we need to decarbonise all our economic activities, from the choices we make about our personal consumption to how goods and services are produced by companies. This will need innovation and can be guided and accelerated by political and fiscal incentives, which is where governments come in.
Beyond political and fiscal incentives, understanding where and how carbon emissions are produced is easier then ever, thanks to a suite of greenhouse gas and carbon footprint calculators that help show us where we can reduce emissions and make the right decisions. There are calculators for individual carbon footprints, such as the WWF’s[xix]. Then there are sector-specific calculators, like the Cool Farm Tool[xx], availabe for agricultural use. Since 2010 it has been providing guidance for farmers, the food industry and research projects. Like many other free online carbon footprint calculators, it invites its users to explore different management choices and immediately visualises their impact on a farm’s or product’s carbon footprint. This makes it easy to explore where the biggest sources of emissions come from and and explore how to reduce them in the most practical and pragmatic way. More recently, water and biodiversity modules have been added that let users explore their impacts – and opportunities for improvement – on the wider suite of environmental indicators.
Our collective success during this Decade of Action will determine whether we, as humanity, will avert catastrophic climate change for ourselves and the generations to come. As daunting as this may seem, it is also empowering: It is in our hands to take charge and act. We can start today.
[ii] United Nations Environment Programme (2019). Emissions Gap Report 2019. UNEP, Nairobi. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/30797/EGR2019.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
[iii] World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), Press Release 2020. Carbon dioxide levels continue at record levels, despite COVID-19 lockdown. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/carbon-dioxide-levels-continue-record-levels-despite-covid-19-lockdown
[iv] Forster, P.M., Forster, H.I., Evans, M.J. et al. Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 913–919 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0883-0
[v] Carbon Brief. State of the climate: 2020 ties as warmest year on record. https://www.carbonbrief.org/state-of-the-climate-2020-ties-as-warmest-year-on-record
[vi] Van Oldenborgh, G. J., Krikken, F., Lewis, S., Leach, N. J., Lehner, F., Saunders, K. R., van Weele, M., Haustein, K., Li, S., Wallom, D., Sparrow, S., Arrighi, J., Singh, R. P., van Aalst, M. K., Philip, S. Y., Vautard, R., and Otto, F. E. L. Attribution of the Australian bushfire risk to anthropogenic climate change. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss. [preprint], in review, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-2020-69
[xi] Guarino, MV., Sime, L.C., Schröeder, D. et al. Sea-ice-free Arctic during the Last Interglacial supports fast future loss. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 928–932 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0865-2
[xiii] United Nations Secretary-General. Remarks to High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. 24 September 2019. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-24/remarks-high-level-political-sustainable-development-forum
[xvi] McKinsey & Company. The $10 trillion rescue: How governments can deliver impact. 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Industries/Public%20Sector/Our%20Insights/The%2010%20trillion%20dollar%20rescue%20How%20governments%20can%20deliver%20impact/The-10-trillion-dollar-rescue-How-governments-can-deliver-impact-vF.pdf
[xvii] Global Commission on Adaptation. Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience. September 2019. https://gca.org/global-commission-on-adaptation/adapt-our-world
[xviii] WHO. Rising to the challenge of malaria eradication. News release, 23 August 2019. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-08-2019-rising-to-the-challenge-of-malaria-eradication
[xix] WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator. (UK) https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/# ; (Germany) https://www.wwf.de/themen-projekte/klima-energie/wwf-klimarechner/