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These are the top 10 insights from climate science in 2020

Here’s what we learned in the last year about how we can steer our way out of the climate crisis.

These are the top 10 insights from climate science in 2020
[Image: StudioM1/iStock]
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Each year we learn more about climate change: what to expect, what we need to do to avoid the worst effects, how our planet will change, and how those changes will affect our own lives. But it can be hard to know how all the new information should inform your understanding of the issue. To help, 57 top researchers from 21 different countries have distilled the current understanding of climate news into a list of the 10 most important climate insights from 2020, ranging from news about new risks like larger emissions from our thawing permafrost to crucial steps we need to take, like setting aside COVID-19 recovery investments for climate goals.

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This is the fourth year that Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme have put together a report on top climate insights, but 2020 was a particularly important year for learning about our climate crisis as we’ve dealt with another crisis: the coronavirus pandemic.

In a year in which countries have had to halt economic impact to curb the spread of COVID-19—a disease itself connected to our changing climate—and yet we’ve still added carbon emissions into our atmosphere, we’ve learned about what an appropriate societal response to crises is, what happens when we fall short, and how our climate systems, social systems, and technical systems can all respond to changes.

Here are the top 10 insights in climate science from 2020:

1: Better models on our planet’s sensitivity to CO2 strengthen support for ambitious emission cuts to meet Paris Agreement goals

New knowledge on our climate’s sensitivity to CO2 show that moderate reductions in emissions are less likely to meet Paris targets, meaning we should strive for more ambitious emission cuts. Advances in modeling also now allow scientist to make regional climate predictions up to a decade in advance, simulating temperature extremes, heavy rainfall, and droughts with improved accuracy, so we can be better prepared.

2: Emissions from thawing permafrost will probably be worse than we thought

As the permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, thaws, greenhouse gases will be released. Scientific advances have shown that these emissions will be significant enough to affect climate negotiations.

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3: Deforestation means tropical forests may have hit their carbon sequestration peak

Forests are crucial for drawing down CO2 emissions—around the world, land ecosystems remove about 30% of human-caused emissions—but as we continue to destroy forests for land-use change, that deforestation is harming this crucial carbon sink. The future of our CO2 levels will depend on how we manage land.

4: Climate change will worsen the water crisis

With new studies showing that climate change is causing extreme precipitation events, from floods to droughts, those extremes will in turn lead to water crises around the world, contributing to the migration and displacement of millions of people.

5: Climate change can take a toll on our mental health

All these compounding effects can, and are, contributing to anxiety and distress, and research shows that the burden of these health impacts from the climate will worsen as climate change does. Blue and green spaces in cities will be important not only for climate resilience, but for their benefits on our mental health.

6: Governments aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity for a green COVID-19 recovery

Around the world, governments are allocating some $12 trillion for pandemic recovery efforts, yet they’re not driving that money toward low-carbon investments. For comparison, a Paris-compatible emissions pathway would require $1.4 trillion in investments.

7: Both COVID-19 and climate change show the need for a new social contract

The pandemic has shown what isn’t working in our society, where governments are falling short, and whose issues are exacerbated by crisis. Climate change will be just as—if not more—disruptive to our lives, meaning we need innovative ways to make our society more resilient, and a new global agreement to address these issues systematically.

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8: Economic stimulus focused only on growth would jeopardize the Paris Agreement

Trying to grow our economy without prioritizing sustainability—including renewable energy, electric vehicles, and other ways to decarbonize our economy—would put us on a path toward failing the Paris Agreement, and actually hurt our economy in the future.

9: We need to electrify cities for equitable sustainable transitions

Urban electrification—via renewable energy, improved buildings, and battery-electric transportation—would not only reduce pollution and curb climate change. It would lessen poverty by providing more than a billion people, by giving them the benefits of a modern energy system.

10: Going to court to defend human rights can be a crucial climate action

Climate litigation and changing legal understandings of who is a “rights holder” in the eye of the law—like future generations or certain elements of nature—can be essential tools in the fight against climate change.

These insights show that climate change isn’t only an issue for climate scientists. It reaches lawyers, governments, economists, and  “This is part of the change in the conversation,” says Erik Pihl, lead author of the report and science officer with Future Earth. “We’ve had a lot of focus about what we need to achieve, led by understanding the natural processes. And I think we’re moving toward ‘how do we achieve this,’ with more focus on social science, law, [and so on.]”