The world must “show the same determination and unity” against the accelerating problem of climate change as against coronavirus, UN experts have urged.
A report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released to mark the 50th anniversary of the annual Earth Day event, confirms the past five years have been the hottest on record globally.
Global average temperatures have increased by 1.1C since pre-industrial times, and levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are at record highs, the state of the climate 2015-2019 found.
At Mauna Loa, Hawaii, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were 411 parts per million (ppm) in 2019, compared to 325 ppm in 1970 when Earth Day was first held.
Since then, physical signs of climate change and impacts on our planet have gathered pace, and have all accelerated in the past five years, the WMO said.
Sea-level rises are accelerating, Arctic sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets continue to decline, there has been an abrupt decrease in Antarctic sea ice and more heat is being trapped in the oceans, harming life there.
Heatwaves were the deadliest meteorological hazard in 2015-2019, the report showed, with new temperature records and unprecedented wildfires as a result.
Some 30% of the world’s population live in climatic conditions that deliver potentially deadly temperatures on at least 20 days a year.
Heavy rain and the floods they bring create conditions for diseases such as cholera and drought worsens food insecurity, the report said.
While Covid-19 and the grinding to a halt of industry and travel it has brought may result in a temporary reduction in greenhouse gases, it is not a substitute for sustained climate action, the WMO warned.
And it will make it more difficult to tackle hazards which are getting worse because of climate change, such as storms and tropical cyclones, while overstretched health systems may not be able to cope with extra patients from heatwaves.
WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said: “Whilst Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human wellbeing, ecosystems and economies for centuries.
“We need to flatten both the pandemic and climate change curves.”
And he urged: “We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against Covid-19.
“We need to act together in the interests of the health and welfare of humanity not just for the coming weeks and months, but for many generations ahead.”
Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Chair of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said: “At a time when our lack of resilience has been exposed most cruelly by the pandemic, this Earth Day report is a reminder that limiting climate change, as agreed in Paris, and adapting to the inevitable changes are central to the resilience of human life on this planet.”
The University of Reading in encouraging people to pledge to continue with one or more of the changes they have made to their lifestyles after the Covid-19 crisis ends, in order to maintain a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions.
Professor Tim Dixon, from the university, said: “Lockdown can’t continue forever, but after the coronavirus crisis eases, we have the chance to continue to keep climate change in lockdown, rather than automatically switching back to high-carbon lifestyles.”
People could stick to some of their changes such as driving less and cycling more, or working from home rather than daily commuting, the university suggests.