Climate

Scientists demand urgent action after Covid-19 did little to slow climate emergency

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A group of the world’s leading scientists have renewed their plea to governments to take meaningful action on climate change, saying the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic had shown the level of  transformational change needed to avoid the devastating consequences of climate change.

In new research, published in the journal BioScience, scientists said the world is facing a climate emergency and that surging greenhouse gas emissions had been barely impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak, despite substantial reductions in travel.

The paper, released on Wednesday, serves as a renewal of the ‘World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency’, first issued in 2019 with more than 11,000 signatories. More than 13,900 scientists have now signed on and called on the world’s governments to act with urgency.

The paper includes an updated assessment of a range of global metrics, including levels of greenhouse gas emissions, resource consumption, and impacts on the environment, including sea-level rise and the loss of polar ice. They show that many climate change related trends continued uninterrupted throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the paper’s authors, Dr Thomas Newsome, from the University of Sydney, said it was disappointing to see global greenhouse gas concentrations surging to new record highs at the same time as the world was experiencing a flurry of devastating climate change related disasters.

“Especially troubling is the increase in climate-related disasters, including the 2019-20 Australian megafires, and the fact that three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – set records for atmospheric concentrations in 2020 and again in 2021,” Newsome said.

“The COVID pandemic has shown dips in human activity are not enough to avoid climate disaster: we need structural transformation of the economy.”

The authors want governments to adopt a “three-pronged near-term policy approach” to take immediate action to reduce global emissions.

This includes a global price on carbon emissions, a commitment to phase out fossil fuel use and active investments in the natural environment to protect and restore natural carbon sinks.

“We suggest an urgent need for transformative change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, more broadly, human overexploitation of the planet,” Newsome said.

“Opportunities still exist to shift pandemic related monetary support measures into climate-friendly activities; it is encouraging to see fossil-fuel divestment and fossil-fuel subsidies improving in record setting ways.”

In the research paper, the scientists raised concerns over the small proportion of government spending on Covid-19 economic recoveries that had been committed to rebuilding economies in a way that also improved environmental outcomes.

The researchers found that just 17 per cent of global stimulus spending had been committed to actions that improved environmental outcomes, raising the prospect that global emissions could immediately rebound once restrictions on movement are relaxed.

“Global gross domestic product dropped by 3.6 per cent in 2020 but is projected to rebound to an all-time high,” professor William Ripple at the Oregon State University said.

“Likely because of the pandemic, fossil-fuel consumption has gone down since 2019, as have carbon dioxide emissions and airline travel levels. All of these are expected to significantly rise with the opening of the economy.”

As a sign of the growing urgency with which climate scientists are calling for accelerated action to cut emissions, the researchers pointed to the increasing frequency and intensity of climate change related disasters over the last couple of years, which have included bushfires, heatwaves and flooding – all since the scientists issued their initial warning in 2019.

“There is growing evidence we are getting close to or have already gone beyond tipping points associated with important parts of the Earth system, including warm-water coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets,” Ripple added.

“Priorities need to shift toward immediate, drastic reductions in greenhouse gases, especially methane,” another of the paper’s authors, Dr Christopher Wolf at Oregon State University, said.

The renewed warning comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meets over the next few weeks to finalise its latest authoritative assessment of the status of climate science.

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