Even During a Pandemic, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Soared to Record Highs in 2020

A report from the American Meteorological Society found that carbon dioxide concentrations were the highest they had been in at least 800,000 years.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Sep. 8, 2021 10:31 UTC

In 2020, more than 100 trop­i­cal storms in both hemi­spheres were reported, com­pared with the aver­age of 85 such storms between 1981 and 2010.

The same year saw Greenland lose 66 bil­lion met­ric tons of ice, while glac­i­ers around the globe lost mass for the 33rd con­sec­u­tive year.

Achieving net-zero green­house gas emis­sions by 2050 and pos­si­bly even ear­lier is absolutely essen­tial. - Thomas Bernauer, advi­sor, IPCC

Also in 2020, total fire emis­sions in the west­ern United States were three times higher than those reg­is­tered from 2003 to 2010.

In many areas of the world, extreme weather events and droughts have dev­as­tated agri­cul­ture and neg­a­tively affected crop yields.

See Also:Wildfires

According to the State of Climate in 2020 report pub­lished by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) last month, global emis­sions of green­house gases exceeded all pre­vi­ous records.

As mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has allowed sci­en­tists to exam­ine ice cores and deter­mine those gases’ con­cen­tra­tion in the atmos­phere through more than 800,000 years of nat­ural his­tory, AMS warned that those his­tor­i­cal num­bers do not com­pare with those recorded in 2020.

Last year, car­bon diox­ide con­cen­tra­tions in the atmos­phere hit a record high of 412.5 parts per mil­lion, 2.5 parts per mil­lion more than recorded in 2019.

The sce­nario framed by the AMS report coin­cides with the find­ings in the lat­est United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Achieving net-zero green­house gas emis­sions by 2050 and pos­si­bly even ear­lier is absolutely essen­tial,” Thomas Bernauer, an IPCC advi­sor and pro­fes­sor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Policy in Zurich, Switzerland, told Olive Oil Times. The Paris Climate Agreement aims at this.”

But even if this can be achieved, mainly by phas­ing out any use of fos­sil fuels over the next few decades, the cli­mate will keep warm­ing fur­ther over the next 50 to 100 years,” he added. This means gov­ern­ments and the pri­vate sec­tor around the world will have to invest very heav­ily in pro­tect­ing against unavoid­able cli­mate change-related risks and haz­ards.”

That is, cli­mate change adap­ta­tion mea­sures are required along­side mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures for green­house gas reduc­tion,” Bernauer con­tin­ued. There is a very close rela­tion­ship between mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion.”

In the United States, European Union and China, gov­ern­ments and local author­i­ties have launched pro­grams to pro­tect and rebuild infra­struc­ture hit by wild­fires and other extreme events.

New projects are being devised to improve agri­cul­ture’s resilience to the chang­ing cli­mate and to reduce emis­sions caused by farm­ing. New funds to rebuild their activ­i­ties and their oper­a­tions are also dis­trib­uted to farm­ers in the hit areas.

U.S President Joe Biden recently approved com­pen­sa­tion for those affected by the California wild­fires. Similar com­pen­sa­tion is being pro­vided to farm­ers in Spain and Italy, mostly fun­neled to the areas hit hard­est by heat­waves and blazes.

Meanwhile, in India, farm­ers on the Raigad and Ratnagiri coasts received com­pen­sa­tion for the cyclones that dec­i­mated the impor­tant cash crops of betel, coconut and mango in 2020.

See Also:Europe Introduces Plan to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Half by 2030

However, experts warn that not all coun­tries hit by the effects of cli­mate change, which are being trig­gered by higher green­house gase con­cen­tra­tions in the atmos­phere, can afford such poli­cies.

If we do not reduce emis­sions rapidly, the adap­ta­tion costs will grow enor­mously and will become unaf­ford­able and tech­ni­cally unfea­si­ble for many coun­tries,” Bernauer said. Climate change is likely to widen the gap between rich and poor coun­tries.”


Rich coun­tries have more resources to be able to afford the large tech­no­log­i­cal tran­si­tion toward a low-emis­sions econ­omy and to pro­tect against cli­mate change impacts,” he added. The faster the rich coun­tries act in reduc­ing their emis­sions, the smaller will be the harm cli­mate change cre­ates for poor coun­tries.”

In the next decades, cli­ma­tol­o­gists and oceanog­ra­phers expect sea lev­els to rise con­stantly and inun­date densely pop­u­lated and inten­sively farmed areas. Sea level rise is dri­ven mostly by the melt­ing of the polar ice caps and glac­i­ers, and ris­ing tem­per­a­tures in the oceans, which leads to their expan­sion.

Oceans trap one-fourth of all the Earth’s car­bon diox­ide, but its con­tin­u­ing accu­mu­la­tion in the waters increases their acid­ity, with grow­ing con­se­quences for bar­rier reefs and marine life. As the waters warm up, sci­en­tists warn that their abil­ity to trap car­bon diox­ide from the atmos­phere dimin­ishes.

Ocean tem­per­a­ture is of absolute rel­e­vance to under­stand­ing global warm­ing because oceans’ ther­mal capac­ity is much higher if com­pared to the atmos­phere,” Gianmaria Sannino, a cli­ma­tol­o­gist in charge of the European Climate Research Initiative’s Sea Level and Climate Change project, told Olive Oil Times.

To warm up the oceans, much more energy is needed,” he added. When we talk about adding 1 ºC to the ocean tem­per­a­ture, we’re talk­ing about a quan­tity of energy we pushed into our oceans, which is com­pa­ra­ble to five first-era atomic bombs explod­ing every sec­ond in the last 30 years.”

For this sce­nario to come to fruition, green­house gas emis­sions would need to con­tinue to grow on a global scale.

However, the AMS warned that green­house gases emis­sions’ growth did not fal­ter, even as much of the world came to a stand­still dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic and emis­sions from fos­sil fuels dropped by six or seven per­cent.

This is a stark reminder that fac­tors lead­ing to a chang­ing cli­mate are deter­mined by time hori­zons far longer than a sin­gle year and have an iner­tia that will take a sig­nif­i­cant effort over a much longer period to halt much less reverse,” the AMS researchers wrote.

One event on its own is note­wor­thy, numer­ous events of a sim­i­lar nature in one year are inter­est­ing, but many of these being record-break­ing in the con­text of past obser­va­tions is con­cern­ing,” they added. The long-term, clear, con­sis­tent trends over the last 10, 50 or 150 years trac­ing the ongo­ing warm­ing of our planet are strik­ing.”

See Also:2020 Tied for Hottest Year on Record, Capping Off the World’s Warmest Decade

The AMS sci­en­tists agreed with the IPCC’s lat­est report, which says tak­ing quick and deci­sive action is crit­i­cal to cur­tail the most extreme con­se­quences of cli­mate change.

While coun­tries such as Poland have announced that it will close the coal-fueled Bełchatów power sta­tion – con­sid­ered the most pol­lut­ing plant of this kind on the planet – in 2020, China has recently con­firmed that it intends to reach a net-zero regime within the next 40 years.

Credited with being respon­si­ble for at least 27 per­cent of cur­rent global emis­sions, Beijing has announced a new five-year effort to enhance the resilience of its marine eco­log­i­cal sys­tem cre­at­ing new car­bon sinks to cap­ture and store green­house gas emis­sions.

In New Zealand, the gov­ern­ment has set a car­bon diox­ide net-zero goal for 2050, but it is still unclear how it will tackle the methane emis­sions – a potent green­house gas – related to the exten­sive cat­tle oper­a­tions.

According to the fig­ures released by the Ministry of Environment, green­house gas emis­sions have been steadily ris­ing in the last few years. An expert com­mis­sion appointed by the gov­ern­ment said that methane emis­sions could be cut by improv­ing breed­ing and farm prac­tices and reduc­ing herds num­bers.

Not all coun­tries and regions, though, are invest­ing in new agri­cul­tural meth­ods capa­ble of adapt­ing to cli­mate change and reduc­ing the sector’s envi­ron­men­tal impact, sci­en­tists warn.

Governments and con­sumers in rich coun­tries are push­ing farm­ers toward more sus­tain­able forms of pro­duc­tion,” Bernauer said. At the same time, farm­ers are fac­ing grow­ing cli­mate change risks, such as droughts, extreme weather events, fires and pests.”

In the coun­tries that can finan­cially afford this, gov­ern­ments will have to pro­vide more sup­port to farm­ers affected by cli­mate change impacts,” he added. However, in turn, farm­ers will have to agree to more envi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able forms of pro­duc­tion. For exam­ple, reduc­ing pes­ti­cide and fer­til­izer use, and giv­ing up inten­sive forms of ani­mal farm­ing.”

However, Bernauer empha­sized that new and yet-to-be-dis­cov­ered agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies will play a crit­i­cal role in mit­i­gat­ing the impacts of cli­mate change on the sec­tor.

I strongly believe that tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion will be very help­ful,” he said. Examples in the farm­ing sec­tor include highly water-effi­cient forms of irri­ga­tion and breed­ing of more drought-resis­tant plant species.”

But I also believe we need to push ahead with tech­nolo­gies for car­bon removal from the atmos­phere,” Bernauer con­cluded. That is, tech­nol­ogy is cru­cial for mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change and adapt­ing suc­cess­fully to cli­matic changes we are unable to pre­vent.”


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