Despite consistent talk from governments about the energy transition and need to address climate change, atmospheric greenhouse gases are at record levels, the World Meteorological Organization has confirmed.
While the annual output of greenhouse gases in 2022 was lower than previous years, the WMO’s latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports these substances are now 50% greater than pre-industrial levels. That’s primarily because of the long-lived nature of carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas produced by human activity, particularly through the burning of coal and oil products for energy and transportation.
Compared to methane, which is released primarily through gas energy and agricultural processes and lasts for a little more than a decade in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide persists for hundreds of years, effectively acting like a heat-trapping blanket over the Earth.
In a statement, WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas described the new record as putting Earth on a pathway to “more extreme weather, including intense heat and rainfall, ice melt, sea-level rise and ocean heat and acidification.”
He also says current greenhouse gas trajectories mean it’s likely governments will collectively fail to meet the legally binding Paris Climate Agreement targets of “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” by the end of the century, with an aspiration to keep those levels below 1.5°C.
“The science is clear – humanity needs to arrest the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations if we are to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees,” says CSIRO senior research scientist Dr Zoe Loh, a co-author of the WMO Bulletin.
Health risks high in hotter world as The Lancet calls for action
The WMO’s findings come on the same day leading global medical journal The Lancet published a crucial warning of the wide-ranging risks presented by changes to climate and world temperatures.
The report by 114 contributors calls for a “health-centred” response to global warming’s threat of “irreversible harms”.
In it, the authors evaluate the shifting effects of increasing global temperatures over the past two decades on large geographical regions.
For the most part, its data shows worsening trends in Africa, Asia, South and Central America and small island states, with only developed regions like Europe, North America and Oceania remaining broadly stable or seeing small improvements in the face of increasing global temperatures.
Among its observations, The Lancet estimates, at current rates, the world will exceed pre-industrial temperatures by 2.7°C degrees at the end of the century – far exceeding the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, with only Europe and North American nations achieving decarbonised economies around this time.
In such a scenario, it predicts a 370% increase in heat-related deaths by 2050 and a 50% increase in lost labour hours due to unworkable conditions.
Increased droughts and heatwaves linked to climate change could force 525 million more people into food insecurity, on top of an estimated 127 million people currently experiencing shortages due to global warming.
Disease is also expected to increase, with habitat suitable for life-threatening pathogens like Vibrio bacteria and dengue increasing by 25%. Since 1982, saltwater coastline suitable for Vibrio has increased by at least 13,400km – roughly the distance from Sydney, Australia to Austin, Texas.
When releasing its report, The Lancet invoked battlelines against what it sees as industries acting against health outcomes, with its ‘Countdown’ co-chair, Professor Anthony Costello of University College London, saying climate mitigation and adaptation “will require defending people’s health from the interests of the fossil fuel and other health-harming industries”.
The report particularly levels criticism of governments in highly developed countries, for their minor actions to address climate change.
Australia was particularly singled out for its response to the challenge, with its Oceania region producing more carbon per person than any other. It notes this figure is “mostly driven by Australia”, and is critical of Australia, the US and Canada for “insufficient, and often negligible, climate change action.”
“With extreme weather records breached in all continents through 2022, risks to human health and survival are increasing across all the dimensions monitored. Around the world, people face increased heat-related illness and extreme weather-related risks, infectious disease spread, and worsened food insecurity,” the authors conclude.
“The associated economic losses add to the health burden, eroding the socioeconomic building blocks of health. Despite the rising risks, adaptation efforts fall short of the necessary action to protect people’s health, particularly in lower human development index countries.”
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