The Data Behind the Blinking Lights of Climate Breakdown

Human Wrongs Watch

10 September 2020 (UN Environment)* — Some of the worst wildfires in California in living memory; exceptional and prolonged heat in Siberia; walls of seawater as Hurricane Laura lashes Louisiana; unprecedented rates of glacier melt and sea-ice loss… these are some of the blinking lights of the climate crisis.


Photo: Reuters

Beyond headline-grabbing climate events, however, lie other indicators that our climate is changing more rapidly.

California fires
California fires. Photo: Reuters

Data-driven approaches

The volume of data in the world is increasing exponentially. By some estimates, 90 per cent of the data in the world has been created in the last two years, and it is projected to increase by 40 per cent annually.

Data is growing as it is increasingly being gathered by inexpensive and numerous information‐sensing, mobile devices and because the world’s capacity for storing information has roughly doubled every 40 months since the 1980s.

Big Data can help spot global environmental trends much more easily than in the 1990s. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) World Environment Situation Room, set up in 2019, is a demonstration platform put together by a consortium of Big Data partners.

Home in Lake Charles, Louisiana destroyed by Hurricane Laura
Home in Lake Charles, Louisiana destroyed by Hurricane Laura. Photo: Reuters

“The project is global with overarching environmental policy relevance and impact,” says Pascal Peduzzi, director of UNEP-GRID-Geneva. “The portal includes geo-referenced, remote-sensing and earth observation information integrated with statistics and data on the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

“The World Environment Situation Room collates climate data in near real-time and is painting a worrying picture. Monthly global temperatures for January, February, March and July 2020, were the second warmest since records began in 1880, while in April, May and June 2020 they were the warmest ever on record since 1880,” says Peduzzi.

Wildfire graph
CO2 concentration has increased 1.3 times since 1960
Wildfire graph
The value for each month is an average of the preceding 12 months. The graph shows that not only is the CO2 concentration increasing, but the amount of increase is speeding up. While the increase over a 12-month period was 1 ppm in the 1970s, it now exceeds 2.4 ppm per year on average. See interactive version of the graph here.

It’s important to note that the global trend in increase of CO2 concentration is not only rising but accelerating. In 1960 it was +0.9 parts per million (ppm) per year, in 1980 +1.21 ppm; in 2000 +1.83 ppm and in 2020 it is +2.51 ppm/year. The average increase over the last 12 months is 2.81 ppm. By comparison, the average increase for the previous 12 months was +2.19 ppm.

While the COVID-19 pandemic reduced global energy demand in the first quarter of 2020 by 3.8 per cent relative to the first quarter of 2019, it has not yet had a clear impact on total CO2emissions.

“There is a strong correlation in the long-term trends between CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels,” says UNEP climate expert Niklas Hagelberg. “We’re in danger of missing key Paris Climate Agreement goals as the emissions gap widens.”

UNEP and partners are shifting the needle in terms of knowledge platforms and sustainable solutions for policymakers in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable heating and cooling systems, greener cities, sustainable cement, better understanding of the oceanic carbon cycle, sustainable agriculture and more.

UNEP’s next Emissions Gap Report is due to be published in December 2020.

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