2020 Bad: Dead heat for the hottest year 2020 Good: Climate heating emissions fall a record 7%

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a new form of personal journalism. Free subscription.


Hello again, I hope you and yours are well. I once covered a climate conference in Anchorage, Alaska organized by Indigenous peoples from around the world. I’ve never forgotten what one elder said: 

Mother Nature is getting warmer and the “fever” needed to be cured. “We see many range (grassland) fires in my territory, it is getting so hot,” said Carrie Dann, an elder from the Western Shoshone Nation, whose ancestral lands extend across the western United States. Dann was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for her efforts to protect ancestral lands.

“Why not give automobiles and planes a day of rest? And then later on, two days of rest. That would cut down on pollution,” Dann suggested.

That was nearly a dozen years ago. Dann has recently passed away but I hope her words and wisdom will live on.

2020 tied 2016 as the world’s hottest year despite the cooling effects of La Niña according to Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. Last year was 1.25°C hotter than the long-term average. That’s the global average over both land and the oceans. Large areas of the Arctic and Siberia experienced shockingly high levels of heat in 2020, averaging 6.0°C above normal for the entire year. 

2016 experienced a strong El Niño event which boosted warming, contributing to that year’s record heat. This year it’s been the opposite: The last few months have seen a La Niña event. That brings cold water from the deep Pacific ocean and reduces the overall warming. Without La Niña, 2020 would have been our hottest year on record. Interesting but here’s the important Need-to-Know: The last six years have been our six hottest years ever

The basic reason why the planet is experiencing record heat is the result of record high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. By the end of 2021 we’ll have added 50% more CO2 to the atmosphere than there was before wide spread use of coal 175 years ago. Increasing the concentration of CO2 by 50% is a staggering feat given the enormous volume of the Earth's atmosphere. 

CO2 traps heat from the sun and with a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere today, there’s an awful lot of extra heat being trapped. That’s why we’re seeing more heat waves on land and in the oceans, stronger, bigger, longer lasting hurricanes, heavier rainfalls and snowfalls and stronger droughts and wildfires.

Finally a good news record

The good news is that our CO2 emissions dropped a record 7% in 2020. That’s a decline of 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2 compared to 2019. (If a ton was a second, 2.4 billion seconds would be 76 years.) That might be the only good thing that’s come from the pandemic. Much of the decline came from a big drop in transportation emissions. This was mainly from our reductions in car and truck use, not because we flew a lot less. 

2020’s emission decline needs to be duplicated in 2021, and in 2022, and in 2023, and…well until we get to zero. (Preferably without an ongoing pandemic.) This is why it’s imperative that economic recovery funds countries are mobilizing be used to green economies. A previous NtK issue reported that an investment of an additional 1.2 percent of global GDP a year would be enough to make the transition to a net-zero carbon global economy. 

That investment is far less than the costs of dangerous climate change. No country, no person, can afford to continue business as usual. 

Share

Another Need-to-Know is that the CO2 emissions in 24 countries have been declining for at least one decade while their economies continue to grow. These are mostly European countries such as the Denmark, the UK and Spain, but also the USA, Mexico and Japan. Canada is not in this group.

But China!!

Everyone wants to blame China for climate change these days. They are the world’s biggest overall producer of CO2 by far — double US emissions. However their per person emissions are still lower than the US, Canada, Australia and Germany’s per person levels. China also intends to become a net-zero emissions country before 2060. That means they’ll have to eliminate coal use, as well as natural gas. China already has over half of the world’s electric vehicles thanks to government incentives. Buses in the Chinese city of Shenzhen are electric: all 16,000 of them. This is saving the city $14,000 a year per bus, cleaning the air and reducing emissions. 

Cars replaced horses in 10 -15 years

A few years ago I wrote a piece for Nat Geo about technological transitions. Cars replaced horses as the main means of transport in only 10 to 15 years in the early 1900s for example. The hurdles to make that happen were enormous: no paved roads, no gas stations or service stations and cars were costly. (The cost of first Ford Model Ts would be like spending US $137,000 on a car today.) Governments played a major role in the transition — paving roads, financial incentives to oil industry and so on. 

Something similar is happening in Norway. More than 50% of new car sales are now electric vehicles (EVs) thanks to government incentives and policies. By 2025 only EVs will be sold in Norway. 

Low-carbon tipping points

EVs are superior to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles is another Need-to-Know. They are easier to manufacture, cheaper to operate, require virtually no maintenance and don’t pollute. When their purchase price is the same a positive tipping point will be reached experts say and sales will accelerate. Emission reduction policies in the US, China and Europe could make this price parity happen in less than three years, and certainly by 2025. EVs are likely to dominate the global automotive market by 2030. 

This is just one example of a low-carbon tipping point. Another is in the power sector where renewables generate electricity cheaper than fossil fuels in more and more countries. There is a cascade effect that can accelerate this transition says Tim Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in the UK. Increasing renewable power generation helps accelerate decarbonization of large parts of transportation, heating and cooling, and industry.

The beauty of tipping points, says Lenton, is that thanks to reinforcing feedbacks, a relatively small number of initial actions could produce large changes on a global scale. However, government policies will be required to overcome barriers until the feedbacks kick in. He does warn:

“Limiting global warming to well below 2°C now requires transformational change, and a dramatic acceleration of progress.”

There is, and will continue to be lots of resistance to this transformational change. Many societies in the past have collapsed because they allowed this resistance to slow or prevent making the changes they needed to continue to prosper. Let’s hope we can embody the wisdom and courage exemplified by Carrie Dann.

Until next time, stay safe.

Stephen