was expected that a record amount of greenhouse gases would be emitted by 2020. It became – due to the outbreak of the coronavirus – a record drop. The coronacrisis drove the climate crisis off the front pages.
But that crisis is not gone. The climate continues to change despite this year‘s lower emissions. In this way, 2020 is again full of signals that global warming is continuing. At the end of this year – probably the second-warmest ever measured – Nieuwsuur takes stock:
At the beginning of 2020, large parts of Australia have been on fire for months. Scientists find it difficult to link a specific fire directly to climate change, because fires are always there. But a warmer, drier world increases the chances of more and more destructive natural fires.
Also forest fires on the other side of the planet. Siberia – an area where you think of cold – is on fire this summer. It’s also a lot warmer than usual.
An additional effect is that the permafrost, frozen tundra regions covering about 20 percent of the planet, begins to thaw faster. Greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide have been stored in the frozen Siberian soil for thousands of years.
All these gases are slowly but surely released, which in turn contributes to the greenhouse effect and hence global warming. This, in turn, ensures that the soil heats up faster, thus releasing more greenhouse gases – with all the consequences that this entails. When methane is released, massive explosions sometimes occur, resulting in gigantic holes.
Around the North Pole we also see something special this year. The ice in the North Pole shrinks and grows every year. In summer there is less ice, more in winter. But less and less ice is coming back in recent years. “If things continue like this, in fifteen years, you‘ll be on zero sea ice at the North Pole in the summer and you’ll have a completely ice-free North Pole,” says weatherman and polar researcher Peter Kuipers Munneke.
A warmer earth means more extreme weather. We also see examples of this in our own country. Last summer‘s heat is such an example.
This year, according to the World Meteorological Organization, it is on average 1.2 degrees warmer than mid-19th century. This puts 2020 on track to get into the top three of the warmest years ever measured.
The Paris Climate Agreement agreed that we should preferably limit global warming to one and a half – and at least keep well below two degrees in order to prevent dangerous climate change.
But that will not work, according to a recent analysis:
How much warmer it eventually gets depends on whether it manages to stop burning coal, oil and gas. It is that combustion that creates more greenhouse gases that lead to warming.
“ The fact that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise means that it will get warmer in the future,” says researcher Ralph Keeling, who works at the Mauna Loa measuring station in Hawaii.
“ It is already warmer due to the rise of the past. That’s what we need to worry about. It means we‘re on our way to a world we don’t know what it‘s going to look like.”
CO2 emissions have been rising for years. But here, too, the coronacrisis causes a trendbreak.
That sounds like good news, but it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved. Climate scientists calculate that if the coronadip is one-off, it will only save 0.01 degrees of warming in the middle of this century, if the dip is permanent, it will have effect. The problem is that emitted greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a long time.
Imagine the atmosphere as a bucket and see the bucket flooding accelerated over the past thirty years towards the half-degree boundary. At the current rate, with 2020 emissions added, that bucket will be full in ten years.
What brings 2021?
And how now? 2021 will be a year of recovery, says climate researcher Kuipers Munneke. “It is important that the economic recovery is also green and sustainable. Many climate scientists hope that we build sectors affected by the crisis in such a way that we do well.”
“ It would be a shame to invest a lot now to go back to exactly the same situation, while we will have to emit far fewer greenhouse gases by 2030,” says Kuipers Munneke. “In the coronacrisis, the economy has become much more localized and people are looking for local businesses. That‘s good to hold on.”
But hard choices will also have to be made, says the climate scientist. “Now many companies are still being held up. At some point, the government has to prioritize. Then I think you should also keep an eye on climate policy and not support sectors for which there is no future.”
Governments have borrowed huge amounts of money in recent months to reduce the crisisbody to go. “You can imagine that they want to keep their hands on the cut in the coming years, but in fact they have to invest heavily in the climate transition,” says Kuipers Munneke.
“ 2021 will be an important year. Hopefully also a year in which climate is again a bit more often on the front pages. There’s every reason to do that, if you look at the numbers.”