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The climate emergency

This article explains the effects of the current climate emergency and outlines the response of the United Nations to the crisis.
Ice-berg in body of water
© University of Central Lancashire

Climate change is affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives. Weather patterns are changing, sea levels are rising, and weather events are becoming more extreme.

The State of the Global Climate 2020 Provisional Report

The State of the Global Climate 2020 Provisional Report outlines how 2020 is on course to be one of the six warmest years on record.

Ocean heat is at record levels and more than 80% of the global ocean experienced a marine heatwave at some time in 2020, with widespread repercussions for marine ecosystems already suffering from more acidic waters due to carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption.

High-impact events

The report shows how high-impact events including extreme heat, wildfires and floods, as well as the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, affected millions of people, compounding threats to human health and security, and economic stability posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greenhouses gases

Despite the COVID-19 lockdown, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continued to rise, committing the planet to further warming for many generations to come because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere (World Meteorological Association, 2020).

The United Nations (UN)

The United Nations (UN) (2020a) is at the forefront in assessing the science of climate change, which shows that it is happening due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels.

The UN warns that we are presently on a path that will lead to accelerating impacts that will adversely affect the lives, livelihoods and health of people.

Sustainable Development Goals

The response of the UN to the climate emergency is embodied in Goal 13 of its Sustainable Development Goals (the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development [United Nations General Assembly, 2015]), that of ‘Climate Action – take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Such action requires a common approach among nations and the Paris Agreement (United Nations, 2020b) is a legally binding international treaty on climate change adopted by 196 Parties on 12 December 2015. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 saw global climate leaders presenting ambitious new commitments, urgent actions and concrete plans to confront the climate crisis, paving the way for the crucial UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow 2021.

Post Covid-19 recovery

The UN (2020a) claims that as countries move to rebuild their economies after COVID-19, recovery plans can shape the 21st-century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.

It presents an opportunity for a profound, systemic shift to a more sustainable economy that works both for people and the planet. The UN Secretary-General has proposed six climate-positive actions for governments to take once they go about building back their economies and societies:

  1. Green transition: investments must accelerate the decarbonisation of all aspects of our economy.
  2. Green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth.
  3. Green economy: making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.
  4. Invest in sustainable solutions: fossil fuel subsidies must end and polluters must pay for their pollution.
  5. Confront all climate risks.
  6. Co-operation – no country can succeed alone.

To address the climate emergency, post-pandemic recovery plans need to trigger long-term systemic shifts that will change the trajectory of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.


The United Nations General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Available at:

The United Nations (2020a). Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 13: Climate Action. Available at:

The United Nations (2020b). The Paris Agreement. Available at:

The United Nations (2020c). The Climate Ambition Summit 2020. Press release. Available at:

World Meteorological Association (2020). State of the Global Climate 2020. Provisional Report. Available at:

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