Climate Change: A Priority in Post-COVID World

The outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 has led to a global recession. Would the economic downturn help combat climate change? From a scientific perspective, the answer is not as simple as yes or no.

Editor’s Note: World Environment Day was held on June 5th, once again reminding people of the many environmental issues that remain unsolved. Though the world is currently tangled by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change is still the most potent threat to our planet. What should we do to better cope with this public crisis as we also deal with a “new normal”? Chao Qingchen, Deputy Director-General of the National Climate Center (NCC), China Meteorological Administration, gives her insights into this universal issue.

Recently, a friend asked me if I was feeling less pressure as a professional devoted to climate change considering so much focus has turned to the spread of COVID-19. I told him that the pandemic has actually caused more pressure on tackling climate change.

A warm year of 2020

I would like to first note that according to estimates from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is a 75 percent chance that 2020 will be the hottest year on record, and a 99.9 percent chance it will rank among the five hottest years. The last few years have been the hottest on meteorological records for the whole world, as well as China. As the northern hemisphere reaches the summer season, people are beginning to feel the intensity of heat waves. According to the U.S., U.K. and other international data sets, the first three months of 2020 have been the warmest or second warmest months on record. The Global Seasonal Climate Update released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in May showed that April 2020 tied with April 2016 as the warmest April on record. As of May 27, China’s National Climate Center (NCC) monitored the average temperature in China was 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than the average temperature over the same period, and the second highest temperature since 1961.

Although it is still too early to be sure whether 2020 will end up the warmest year on record, the general trend of global warming is largely certain and beyond doubt. Since 1961, the average number and intensity of high-temperature days in summer (May-September) in China has increased at an average rate of 0.8 days per 10 years, and at a higher rate of 2.7 days per 10 years since 1993, with heat waves occurring frequently. For example, in the summer of 2013, the eight provinces and municipalities along the Yangtze, Huaihe and Hanjiang rivers had twice as many high-temperature days as the same period in an average year, the most since 1951, resulting in serious economic losses. In the summer of 2018, the average temperature, average highest temperature and average lowest temperature all soared to record levels in the country, with the power grid load hitting a record in several locations.

Global troubles

According to reports published by international institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 12,000 extreme weather and climatic events occurred globally in the 20 years from 1999 to 2018, which led to 495,000 deaths and US$3.45 trillion in economic losses. In 2019, the average global surface temperature was about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial (1850-1900) levels. The five years from 2015 to 2019 were the warmest on meteorological record. The average global sea level rose by 3.6 millimeters per year in the 10 years from 2006 to 2015, at a rate 2.5 times higher than in the 90 years from 1901 to 1990. The increase in frequency and intensity of ocean heat waves has triggered large-scale coral bleaching. The total mass loss from the Antarctica ice sheet during the decade from 2007 to 2016 was three times that of the decade from 1997 to 2006. The cryosphere and associated hydrological changes have affected terrestrial and freshwater organisms and ecosystems in high mountains and polar regions, as well as food security, water resources, transport, tourism and culture.

The rise of global average sea level is expected to continue accelerating. Without mitigation actions, the global average sea level will rise at a rate of 15 millimeters per year by 2100, and dozens of millimeters per year after this century. By 2050, the frequency of extreme sea level events will increase from once a century to once a year, and coastal ecosystems will face increasing risks. Sea-level rise, ocean warming, and acidification will increase risks in low-lying coastal areas and some small island states will become uninhabitable by 2100 due to changes in the cryosphere and ocean. By mid-century (2031-2050), the trend of global glacial material loss, permafrost melting and the decreasing of snow cover and Arctic sea ice will continue, which will affect river runoff and bring about many local disasters such as avalanches, landslides, glacial lake outburst floods, frozen soil melting and sinking. The risks to infrastructure, culture, tourism, and recreational resources in Alpine and Arctic regions will increase in the future.

It appears that future climate change will be more intense and rapid than it is now if actions are not taken as soon as possible. International institutions predict that by 2050, the socio-economic impact of climate change will multiply from two to twenty times.

Students draw picture for protecting ozone at a primary school in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, Sept 13, 2018. (Photo: China Daily via VCG)

Potential dangers for China

Research by the NCC and other Chinese institutions has shown that China will face more intense extreme weather conditions and climatic disasters in the future, with increasing risk of disasters such as extreme temperatures, floods, and droughts. Short-term heavy precipitation events will increase, and the recurrence interval of once-a-century hourly precipitation in big cities will shorten significantly, adding risk to urban drainage. In the last 60 years, the atmospheric environmental capacity of major Chinese city clusters decreased by 5 to 10 percent, and the self-purification capacity of the atmosphere has decreased, adding risk to human health. Drought, low temperatures, and more intense flooding may have a serious negative impact on the stability of the food system and a broader risk to vulnerable areas of food security, including significant negative impact on rice production. Global warming has reduced the overall size of glaciers in western China by about 18 percent, affecting downstream runoff and water resources, threatening ecological security, and even exacerbating the risk of poverty and migration in the western regions. The maximum freezing depth of frozen soil in China has decreased by an average of 6.4 centimeters per 10 years, which threatens the safe operation of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The thawing of permafrost will also lead to the degradation of ecosystems in the source regions of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and the inland river mountainous basins in China. By the end of this century, the area of farmland affected by drought in China is expected to increase more than 1.5 times, and the highly vulnerable areas affected by typhoons in the eastern coastal areas will double. By around 2024, at least half of summers could have long-term heat waves, and the number of heat waves could triple by the end of the century. In the future, the suitable distribution range of 135 species of 208 endemic and endangered species in China could be reduced to about 50 percent of the current range. Broad-leaved forests in the eastern regions would shrink as would northern coniferous forests. The distribution area of the boreal forest would shrink too, and the cold-temperate forest would move north. In general, climate risk to natural ecosystems, food security, human health and biodiversity would further increase, which could trigger chain risk to education, culture, and tourism sectors.

2030 global emissions targets amid pandemic uncertainty

The outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020 has led to a global recession. I have been asked whether the economic downturn would help combat climate change. From a scientific perspective, the answer is not as simple as yes or no. As we all know, ample evidence shows that greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are a major source of global warming. But the response of the climate system to changes in greenhouse gases on a time scale of a century or a millennium depends on cumulative emissions of long-lasting greenhouse gases. In short, even if global emissions came to a sudden stop or a certain small amount, the temperature response would continue for several years. The temperature would not drop immediately. The thermal inertia of the ocean not only delays warming, but also delays any cooling for decades to centuries. Based on International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis, the spread of the pandemic has caused the greatest impact on the global energy system in nearly 70 years. Global energy demand is expected to fall by 6 percent in 2020, leading to nearly 8 percent reduction in global energy-related carbon emissions. It is obvious that this is not the result of new policies and strategies adopted by governments and enterprises, but a short-term fluctuation. With the reopening of economies, emissions growth is likely to have a “retaliatory” rebound. According to reports of IPCC and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), even if all current unconditional commitments under the Paris Agreement are implemented, temperatures are expected to rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius. To achieve the 2-degree target, annual emissions in 2030 need to be 15 gigatons of CO2 equivalent lower than current unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) imply, equivalent to about three years of total global greenhouse gas emissions. There is a long way to go to deal with climate change. In December 2019, the European Commission issued the European Green Deal (EGD) which defined the growth strategy for the EU’s overall green economic and social development by 2050. Many worried that the pandemic would affect the EU’s green development plan. Recently, the EU reiterated that it would continue to follow the green development path after the pandemic, which highlighted the EU’s determination to reduce emissions.

China has promoted climate change response alongside ecological and environmental protection. Since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, China has adopted a series of measures of fundamental, pioneering, and long-lasting importance for historic, transformative, and overall changes in both ecological and environmental protection and climate change response. Such policies have brought a great sense of achievement, happiness, and security to the people. The efforts and achievements of the Chinese government and people in mitigating and adapting to climate change have been recognized globally. Recently, I participated in compiling relevant chapters of the 14th Five-Year Plan by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Ecological Environment, and China Meteorological Administration. Strategies on climate risk management and green low-carbon development were actively considered. There is a growing consensus that the risk of climate change will be the next “gray rhino” event. We are also assessing climate change risks through national R&D projects and international cooperation with the U.K. and other countries to develop new and better indicators to assess such risks.

At the end of the day, strengthening early warning of climate change risks, enhance source management, and building a waste-free society are important approaches to achieving green and high-quality development as well as important platforms to lead global environmental governance and build a community with a shared future for mankind.