Trending Science: Charting the highs and lows of climate change

As we mark World Meteorological Day, the world is moving into what has been referred to as unchartered territory, with 2016 the warmest on record and 2017 set to follow the trend. With the Paris Climate Change Agreement less than 18 months old, what now for progress?

As the latest World Meteorological Organization report released this week indicates, 2016 made history as being the warmest on record. The WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas has stated this constitutes, ‘A remarkable 1.1 °C above the pre-industrial period, which is 0.06 °C above the previous record set in 2015. This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system.’

Mr Taalas cites increased computing power as well as the benefits of data from long term studies, as enabling ever more accurate evidence for human induced climate change. Indeed, what lends the WMO report added authority is that its data-sets are an amalgamation of information conducted by researchers from various institutes around the world, including 80 national weather centres.

A continuing climate trend

The WMO report outlines an upward trend of global temperature warming per decade of 0.1 °C to 0.2 °C. According to the report, every year since 2001 has been at least 0.4 °C above the long-term average for the monitoring base period (1961-1990). Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 2015 also reached 400 parts per millions, the last year where WMO global figures are available and due to the long-lasting nature of CO2, will not fall for many generations.

Alongside, long term warming through greenhouse gas emissions, 2016 was also a strong El Niño year, an event which usually raises temperatures 0.1 °C to 0.2 °C above background levels, as well as also raising global sea levels. Additionally, the extent of global sea ice reduced by four million square kilometres below average in November, unheard of for that month.

The impacts of weather extremes continue to be felt across the planet. Extreme droughts for example exacerbate food insecurity in areas such as southern and eastern Africa, while storms and flooding result in devastating loss to livelihoods, as well as to loss of life.

Worryingly, the WMO points out that this trend is continuing into 2017, with the latest studies indicating that ocean heat may have increased at a greater level than previously reported and that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have not eased. The world appears to be experiencing ever greater extremes such as the Arctic sea-ice coming close to melting point during the usual winter refreezing period. These changes in turn lead to altered oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns which have an impact on weather in other parts of the world, such as the unusually cold conditions in early 2017 felt in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa.

But, we’ll always have Paris?

It is not yet 18 months since the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in December 2015 by the representatives of 195 countries. And with enough of the world''s biggest greenhouse gas producing countries ratifying the agreement by October last year to bring it into force, the momentum seemed to be building to curb fossil fuel-burning.

However, much can change in a few short months. It has been widely reported that U.S. President Donald Trump would consider withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, representing a significant blow from one of the world’s biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. Currently, at the very point when, as WMO’s Mr Taalas has stated, ‘Continued investment in climate research and observations is vital if our scientific knowledge is to keep pace with the rapid rate of climate change,’ the U.S seems to be moving in the opposite direction. President Trump’s recently proposed budget would cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by almost a third, with the budget director recently describing money spent on combatting climate change as, a ‘waste.’

The shoots of green growth

Perhaps renewed hope comes in a guise that would have seemed highly unlikely not so long ago. At the Climate Change Conference (COP 22) in Marrakesh last November, the Chinese vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin made it clear that China was committed to a low-carbon pathway. Indeed, the indications seem to be that China is willing and able to take up a climate change leadership role, echoed at Davos this January, by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Perhaps the real seeds of progress can be detected in the self-interest of China’s stance, as it sees economic opportunity in the global supply of low-carbon products and services. China has the world’s largest capacity of installed wind and solar power, is implementing an emissions trading scheme and invested $32 billion in renewables abroad in 2016.

Many advocates for climate change mitigation and adaption initiatives would argue that for lasting change, leading to a more sustainable future, innovations and policies must also yield this kind of built-in economic advantage.

last modification: 2017-03-24

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