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Temperature and carbon dioxide levels hit record highs this year, underscoring the magnitude of the climate crisis. At the same time, landmark global deals on reducing emissions from the aviation and refrigeration sectors offer some hope.

Flooding in Sri Lanka between 14 and 22 May 2016, triggered by the heaviest rainfall it has ever seen in 25 years. Image: European Commission DG ECHO, CC BY-NC 2.0

Where climate action was concerned, 2016 started off positively as the optimism from the December 2015 signing of the Paris Agreement carried through into the new year. But things soon took a turn for the worse as monthly temperature records toppled, setting up 2016 to be the hottest year on record, and climate change was linked to disturbing phenomena such as an anthrax outbreak in North Russia. 

There were, however, hopeful moments such as the milestone Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which sets a timetable for countries to phase down the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons and a commitment by the aviation sector to permanently cap its emissions at 2020 levels.

However, the year ended on a note of uncertainty with the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States of America. Here are the top five climate stories of 2016. 

1. Hottest year on record—again. 

From the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to the UK Met Office, experts unanimously agreed that 2016 will almost definitely be the hottest year ever, a record previously set by 2015. Scientists will only be able to confirm this early next year.

Analysts attributed the high temperatures partly to the lingering effects of El Niño, the weather phenomenon that brings hot and dry weather to affected areas. El Niño will no longer be in effect next year, so 2017 may not be as warm as this year, predicted the UK Met Office.

Australian scientists, meanwhile, in November warned that new records for global temperature highs could become the new normal for the planet as early as 2025 if the world continues with “business as usual” activities such as burning fossil fuels. 

Singapore, too, experienced its hottest day on record this year, on April 19. The average daily temperature registered at 30.6 degrees Celsius, slightly higher than the previous record of 30.2 deg C, from last June. 

It wasn’t just the mercury that hit record highs this year; so did atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. In June, scientists said that 2016 would be the first year where an iconic carbon dioxide recording station in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, would register concentrations above 400 parts per million (ppm) all year round.

This is in excess of the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide agreed by experts, which is 350 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels are unlikely to drop below this critical threshold in our lifetimes, said scientists. 

2. Paris Agreement enters into force faster than expected

The Paris Agreement officially entered into force on November 4, less than a year after it was adopted in the French capital. To take effect, it needed 55 parties representing 55 per cent of global emissions to ratify the treaty—that is, to formally consent to be bound by the agreement. This threshold was crossed on October 6.  

Small island states such as the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Samoa, which are especially vulnerable to climate change, were among the first to ratify the agreement in April, while other major emitters such as the United States, China, and India did so in September and October. 

Singapore, which committed to reduce its emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around then, ratified the Agreement in September.

The city-state’s efforts to fulfil its pledge are laid out in its Climate Action Plan, launched in July. The two-part document outlines strategies for Singapore to mitigate climate change by improving energy efficiency and adopting low-carbon technologies, as well as adapt to a warming world.

It will do so through measures such as building seawalls in coastal areas, diversifying its food supply, and developing a new heat stress information system to help the public cope with rising temperatures.

The speed with which the agreement took effect is unprecedented in the recent history of international agreements. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC), noted that the “entry into force bodes well for the urgent, accelerated implementation of climate action that is now needed to realise a better, more secure world”.

3. Plans to cool the climate take flight

In October, the global community also signed two deals that address emissions sources not covered by the Paris Agreement.

First, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), at its 39th congress in Montreal, Canada on October 6, saw governments, businesses and civil society agree on a deal to cap aviation emissions worldwide at 2020 levels.

Airlines will have to purchase carbon credits to offset any emissions that exceed this limit. Compliance with this scheme will be voluntary from 2021 to 2027, and mandatory after that.

ICAO estimates that this deal could get the industry to offset between 443 million and 596 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2035, and would cost the sector between US$5.3 billion and US$23.9 billion to do so. However, some observers have expressed concern that the scheme will not be enough to achieve global emissions reduction goals.

The second agreement was the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, signed in the Rwandan capital. It sets a timetable for countries to phase down the production and use of HFCs. 

HFCs are chemicals developed in the 1990s to replace their predecessor, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The scientific discovery that CFCs deplete the ozone layer rallied the global community to sign the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a legally binding treaty that bans CFC use.

While HFCs do not affect the ozone layer, the synthetic chemicals have an adverse impact on climate change.

The Kigali Amendment, which unlike the Paris Agreement is legally binding, requires countries to replace HFCs with more sustainable alternatives such as ammonia and other natural refrigerants. Among other actions, it prohibits countries that have ratified the deal from selling the raw materials to make HFCs to those that have not. 

Rich countries such as the USA and European Union must reduce their HFC use to specific targets by 2019; others such as China, Brazil, and all African nations must do this by 2024, while some of the world’s hottest nations including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India, have until 2028 to do so. 

Environmental experts have noted that the Kigali Amendment “could be the single largest real contribution the world has made so far towards keeping the global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius”.

4. An uncertain climate future under Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump as the next US president in November cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of global climate change efforts.

The president-elect has among other things, called climate change “a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive”, threatened to “cancel the Paris climate Agreement”, “stop all US payments to the UN climate change fund” and invigorate the US coal industry. 

Since his election, members of his team have indicated that the administration will cut back funding to NASA’s earth science division on the grounds that the agency’s climate research is “politicised”. He also appointed known climate denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

But Trump also told media that he has an “open mind” on the issue, and will “study a lot of the things that happened on it and … look at it very carefully”.

Meanwhile, the rest of the global community has renewed its efforts to keep the post-Paris momentum on climate action going.

Countries such as India, China, as well as several African and Southeast Asian nations have set ambitious renewable energy targets and invested heavily in the sector—India in December opened the world’s largest solar plant—pointing to an optimistic outlook for clean power.

Observers have also pointed out that countries such as China and the European Union now have a unique opportunity to position themselves as climate leaders, and that grassroots communities, cities, and states must all step up efforts to ensure the world meets its climate targets, no matter what.

5. Climate change continues to take lives

Climate change-related disasters such as floods and natural disasters continued to ravage countries and communities globally; they also had an impact on human health.

The death toll from natural disasters continued to mount this year. One of the deadliest natural disasters of 2016 was Hurricane Matthew, which struck Haiti, the south-eastern United States and other countries in the region in late September. The storm caused at least 1,600 deaths in Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, as well as some US$10 billion in damages.

Elsewhere, Cyclone Roanu struck Bangladesh in May, killing at least 25 people. In June, floods in Central Europe killed 18 people while landslides and flash floods in Indonesia killed 64. In August, floods in north India took at least 300 lives, and forced some 200,000 residents of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states into relief camps.

Natural disasters aside, climate change was also linked to an increase in food, water, and vector-borne diseases such as Zika Virus. Singapore experienced its own outbreak of Zika earlier this year, sparking alarm in the community.

Climate change was also blamed for an outbreak of the anthrax virus in north Russia that left at least one child dead; and the occurrence of “thunderstorm asthma” in the Australian state of Victoria.

The latter refers to respiratory distress caused by exposure to high volumes of pollen, which spiked suddenly due to severe storms in the region. Scientists noted that climate change could be partly to blame for the increase in frequency and intensity of storms, as well as the greater potency of pollen.

 

Source: National Climate Chnage Secretariat | 12 December 2016

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