On 4 November 2016, the Paris Agreement entered into force, a cause for celebration for many and certainly a triumph of diplomacy. The agreement offers the possibility of avoiding a 2° Celsius (C) increase in global temperatures, the UNFCCC internationally-accepted point at which the risks from climate change become dangerous and unpredictable. For the most vulnerable nations, however, the lower 1.5°C limit to global warming is vital and the year 2016 showed just how difficult that target will be to achieve.
Since 4 November, grim climate news has come thick and fast, reminding us just how close we are to losing any opportunity of meeting the 1.5°C target.
Global CO2 concentrations are now above 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest levels for over 800,000 years. 2016 is likely to be confirmed as the warmest year since records began in 1880, with global annual mean temperature beating the 2015 record and hitting 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. Sixteen of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st century.
Arctic Sea ice levels for November were at record low levels of 28 per cent below the previous 30-year average, with temperatures at one point 20°C above the monthly average. The melting of Arctic and Greenland ice is adding to increasingly rapid global sea- level rise, which is currently around 3.4 millimetre (mm) per year.
These changes in the global climate are leading to more frequent and severe extreme weather events around the world. A number of extreme heatwaves occurred in 2016, with temperature records being broken in India, South Africa, and Thailand. A number of major flooding events, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires also continued to occur in 2016, with often devastating humanitarian consequences.
The need to take action to drastically reduce emissions has never been more obvious. The rate of manmade global warming is faster than ever and the emissions we have already released into the atmosphere will continue to affect temperatures for decades to come. There may be less than a decade left before the 1.5°C target is passed, with 2°C not far behind.
The carbon budget for a 2°C limit means that the world will need very ambitious emissions reductions in the coming decade. Ten per cent of the world’s population are responsible for around 50 per cent of global emissions, so we must see drastic change in developed countries like ours in the very short term. When will we see political ambition and action that lives up to the urgent need for a transformed economy and way of life?
Alistair Ford is a Researcher in Geomatics at Newcastle University