UN: Last year was second-warmest and decade was hottest ever

FILE - This satellite image provided by NASA on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 shows wildfires in Victoria and New South Wales, Australia. Climate change raised the chances of Australia’s extreme fire season by at least 30%, according to a study released Wednesday, March 4, 2020, by climate scientists at the World Weather Attribution group. (NASA via AP)
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Last year was the second warmest on record, the past decade was the hottest in human history and January was the warmest January since 1850, the head of the U.N. weather agency said Tuesday.

Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization also said Europe had a record-warm winter, and “we have also broken records in (emitting) carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide,” three greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Taalas said at a briefing on the agency’s annual State of the Global Climate 2019 report that carbon dioxide has contributed two-thirds of global warming, “and its lifetime is of several hundreds of years — so it’s a problem that doesn’t go away if you let these concentrations continue.”

Sitting beside Taalas, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said: “Greenhouse gas concentrations are at the highest levels in 3 million years — when the Earth’s temperature was as much as three degrees hotter and sea levels some 15 meters higher.”

He added: “Ocean heat is at a record level, with temperatures rising at the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs a second.”

Taalas said the warming of the oceans has led to unusual tropical storms, including one in Mozambique in March 2019 that was the strongest in the Southern Hemisphere “at least for the past hundred years.”

He said there is also an estimate “that sea water is the most acid in 25 million years … and that’s going to have negative impacts on the sea ecosystems.”

Taalas also pointed to forest fires causing a lot of emissions, in the Arctic and Australia where “they were, again, record breaking.”

“Smoke and pollutants from damaging fires in Australia circumnavigated the globe, causing a spike in carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

Guterres said there is no time to lose “if we are to avert climate catastrophe.”

Many scientists say the use of fossil fuels, which are one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, need to end by the middle of the century if average temperatures on Earth are to rise no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, the target set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Guterres said the world is way off track for meeting the target, and “we have to aim high at the next climate conference in Glasgow in November.”

So far, he said, 70 countries have announced they are committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, joined by cities, banks, businesses and others, but this still represents only one-quarter of global emissions.

“The largest emitters must commit or our efforts will be in vain,” Guterres said.

He said the Group of 20 major economic powers account for 80% of world emissions.

In the coming months, the U.N. will be very actively engaging Western Europe nations, the U.S., Canada, China, India, Russia and Japan “in order to have as many as possible, ideally all of them, committed to carbon neutrality in 2050,” the secretary-general said.

Guterres pointed to “good news” from the European Union, which unveiled plans last week for its first-ever climate law that would make legally binding its executive arm’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

“Let’s hope that this example can be followed by all the others,” he said.