Climate Science 2020 – 10 New Insights

02 Feb, 2021

With impacts from climate change threatening to be as abrupt and far-reaching as the current pandemic, leading international scientists have released a compilation of the 10 most important insights from the last year to help inform collective action on the ongoing climate crisis.

In 10 New Insights into Climate Science – Summary for Policymakers, presented this week to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, authors including AUT ecology professor Sebastian Leuzinger, outline some of 2020’s most important findings within the field of climate science, ranging from improved models supporting the need for aggressive emission cuts to meet the Paris Agreement, to the growing use of human rights litigation to bring about climate action.

The report narrows the range of predicted global warming which alleviates more drastic scenarios but means those countries with low CO2 mitigation targets are highly unlikely to deliver on the Paris Agreement. The report also points out a number of growing risk factors including emissions from thawing permafrost are likely to be worse than previously expected concerns about weakening carbon uptake in land ecosystems, and climate change impacts on freshwater and mental health.

The ten new insights are:

  1. Improved understanding of Earth's sensitivity to CO2 strengthens support for ambitious emission cuts to meet the Paris Agreement.
  2. Emissions from thawing permafrost are likely to be worse than expected because of the 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 30% of human CO2 emissions due to a CO2 fertilisation effect on plants. Deforestation of tropical forests is 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 (flood and drought). The impacts of these are highly unequal, which is caused by and intensifies gender, income and sociopolitical inequality.
  5. Climate change can profoundly affect our mental health, 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 benefits and provide resilience.
  6. Governments are not seizing the opportunity for a green recovery from Covid-19: governments globally are spending more than US$12 trillion for Covid-19 recovery. As a comparison, annual investments needed to reach Paris Agreement targets are estimated to be US$1.4 trillion.
  7. Covid-19 and climate change demonstrate the need for a new social contract: the pandemic has highlighted inadequacies of both governments and international institutions to cope with transboundary risks.
  8. Economic stimulus focused primarily on growth would jeopardise the Paris Agreement.
  9. Electrification in cities is pivotal for just sustainability transitions: urban electrification can be a sustainable way to reduce poverty by providing more than a billion people with modern types of energy, but also as a clean substitute for existing services that drive climate change and harmful local pollution.
  10. Going to court to defend human rights can be essential climate action: legal understandings of who or what is a rights holder are expanding to include unborn generations, and elements of nature (such as the Whanganui River), as well as who can represent them in court.

“This series is a critical part of our mission to get the latest science to decision makers in an accessible format to help accelerate transitions to sustainability,” says Wendy Broadgate, Future Earth Global Hub Director, Sweden. “Worsening wildfires, intensifying storms, and even the ongoing pandemic are all signals our relationship with nature is deteriorating, with deadly consequences.”


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 brings together the latest sustainability research for the international science-policy community.

Useful links:

Professor Leuzinger contributed to Insight three.

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