The peer-reviewed article 10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020 – a Horizon Scan, published in the journal Global Sustainability summarizes some of the past year’s most important findings within climate change-related research.Gustaf Hugelius at Bolin Centre for Climate Research is lead author on the part on greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost.

Sampling soils next to thermokarst lakes forming as permafrost thaws in a Russian peatland area.
Sampling soils next to thermokarst lakes forming as permafrost thaws in a Russian peatland area. Photo: Gustaf Hugelius

New research has improved our understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide, finds that permafrost thaw could release more carbon emissions than expected and that the uptake of carbon in tropical ecosystems is weakening. Adverse impacts on human society include increasing water shortages and impacts on mental health. Options for solutions emerge from rethinking economic models, rights-based litigation, strengthened governance systems and a new social contract. The disruption caused by COVID-19 could be seized as an opportunity for positive change, directing economic stimulus towards sustainable investments.

Gustaf Hugelius at the Bolin Centre for Climate Research and Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, is lead author of insight 2: Greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost will be larger due to abrupt thaw processes.

“These new findings highlight several different processes that cause even higher projected permafrost emissions. Unfortunately, permafrost emissions are not accounted for in international negotiations on emission reductions. Basically, we need to consider permafrost as an additional emitter that will grow rapidly unless action to reduce global emissions is taken.”

Report summarizes the findings for the international science-policy community

The report 10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020 is a summary of the peer-reviewed article. The report was prepared by a consortium of 57 leading researchers from 21 countries. As a partnership of Future Earth, the Earth League, and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), the series synthesizes the latest sustainability research for the international science-policy community, with annual installments since 2017.

This year’s top insights are:

  1. Improved understanding of Earth’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide strengthen support for ambitious emission cuts to meet Paris Agreement: The climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide – how much the temperature rises with a certain increase of emissions – is now better understood. This new knowledge indicates that moderate emission reductions are less likely to meet the Paris climate targets than previously anticipated.
  2. Emissions from thawing permafrost likely to be worse than expected: Emissions of greenhouse gases from permafrost will be larger than earlier projections because of abrupt thaw processes, which are not yet included in global climate models.
  3. Tropical forests may have reached peak uptake of carbon: Land ecosystems currently draw down 30% of human CO2 emissions due to a CO2 fertilization effect on plants. Deforestation of the world’s tropical forests are causing these to level off as a carbon sink.
  4. Climate change will severely exacerbate the water crisis: New empirical studies show that climate change is already causing extreme precipitation events (floods and droughts), and these extreme settings in turn lead to water crises. The impact of these water crises is highly unequal, which is caused by and exacerbates gender, income, and sociopolitical inequality.
  5. Climate change can profoundly affect our mental health: Cascading and compounding risks are contributing to anxiety and distress. The promotion and conservation of blue and green space within urban planning policies as well as the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity in natural environments have health co-benefits and provide resilience.
  6. Governments are not seizing the opportunity for a green recovery from COVID-19: Governments all over the world are mobilizing more than US$12 trillion for COVID-19 pandemic recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed for a Paris-compatible emissions pathway are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion.
  7. COVID-19 and climate change demonstrates the need for a new social contract: The pandemic has spotlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks.
  8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth would jeopardize the Paris Agreement: A COVID-19 recovery strategy based on growth first and sustainability second is likely to fail the Paris Agreement.
  9. Electrification in cities pivotal for just sustainability transitions: Urban electrification can be understood as a sustainable way to reduce poverty by providing over a billion people with modern types of energy, but also as a way to substitute clean energy for existing services that drive climate change and harmful local pollution.
  10. Going to court to defend human rights can be an essential climate action: Through climate litigation, legal understandings of who or what is a rights-holder are expanding to include future, unborn generations, and elements of nature, as well as who can represent them in court.

The full report can be found on Future Earth’s website