8 Risks You Missed During COVID-19

By Chien Tat Low 15 May, 2020

Been too focused on COVID? Catch-up on all things climate & water with CWR's Dr. Low who runs through 8 latest risks

COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge but we are getting distracted from another world changing threat, climate change; 2019 was the 2nd hottest year & the hottest for ocean warming
Also, the current scale & speed of ice loss will raise sea levels by 88cm = 400mn people at risk; Sea level rise will hit the US but especially Asia from extreme daily floods to underwater airports
The world's chaotic management of the pandemic warns we must better prepare for the climate crisis; we can't get solutions wrong, e.g. LNG actually worse than conventional marine fuel

The outbreak of COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and facing an unprecedented challenge, many countries are rightly focusing on fighting COVID-19. But we are so distracted with updates on the pandemic and busy dealing with its implications across all aspects of life that we are going to be blindsided by another world changing threat – climate change.

COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge but we still risk being blindsided by climate threats…

…Top 10 risks all climate related in WEF Global Risk Report 2020

Climate change is relentless, and we simply cannot stall our fight, our actions. For the first time, climate-related issues made-up all of the top long term risks in the 2020 WEF Global Risk Report, including “extreme weather”, “climate action failure”, “natural disasters”, “biodiversity loss”, and “human-made environmental disasters”.

And we can see why, as within just a few months after the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been plenty more grim news on the climate crises, from accelerated warming of oceans, melting glaciers, and rising sea level, to abnormal hurricanes and megadrought. And even more, is new that an alternative measure hailed as “climate solution” could do more harm than business as usual.

Below are the 8 big climate stories that you probably missed while the world has been watching COVID-19.

1. Getting hotter & hotter – 2020 on track to be the hottest year on record

NASA is projecting that 2020 will be the hottest year on record, after confirming 2019 is the second hottest year for the world after 2016 since recordkeeping started in 1980. The annual global temperature in 2019 was nearly 1°C warmer than the average for 1951-1980.

2019 was also the hottest year for Europe and Australia. Summer temperatures in part of Europe were as 3oC – 4oC higher than normal in 2019. Scientists even say that global warming boosted Australia wildfires risk by at least 30%; wildfires razed more than 18mn hectares of bush in Australia late last year.

A new study also found that if the earth continues to warm at the current rate, 3.5bn people could live in extreme heat by 2070. Unless greenhouse gas emissions fall, large numbers of people will experience average temperatures hotter than 29°C.

2. The ocean is getting hotter too – Hot like dropping 5 atomic bombs every second

A study published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences shows that 2019 was another year of record-setting for ocean warming; 0.075°C warmer than the 1981-2010 average. While this might not seem much, between 1987-2019, the ocean has warmed at an unprecedented rate of 450% greater than the average 1955-1986.

2019 was the most warming year for the ocean…

…last 25 years like dropping 3.6bn atomic bombs

The amount of heat going into the oceans in the past 25 years is equal to 3.6bn Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions, which is equivalent to dropping five Hiroshima bombs into the ocean every second. And yes, this is because of humans. According to the lead researcher, “there are no reasonable alternatives aside from the human emissions of heat trapping gases to explain this heating”.

The ocean absorbs more than 90% of earth’s excess heat. As oceans warm, the massive store of dissolved CO2 may be released back into the atmosphere and exacerbate the greenhouse effect. And research shows that the ocean has absorbed 60% more heat per year than the figure in the 2014 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

Scientists believe that phytoplankton in the ocean contribute around 50-80% of O2 in the atmosphere. All other life in the ocean also needs phytoplankton to survive. Rising temperatures will cause ocean waters to become more acidic and put the phytoplankton in danger and affect marine ecosystems. Since 1960, the amount of oxygen in the global ocean has fall by 2% due to global warming.

3. Greenland & Antarctica are melting 6x faster than in the 1990s; Arctic ice is also losing fast

Since the 1990s, many glaciers around the world have been rapidly melting. A study supported by NASA and the European Space Agency has revealed a shocking observation – Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice six times faster than they were in the 1990s. The two regions have lost 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice between 1992-2018. Resulting meltwater has increased global sea levels by 17.8mm.

The current scale & speed of ice loss will will be on track to match the “worst-case scenario” of the IPCC’s AR5

The current scale and speed of ice loss, if not stopped, will be on track to match the “worst-case scenario” of the IPCC’s AR5. Together, this will add another 17cm of sea level rise (SLR) by end of century, putting 400mn people at risk of annual coastal flooding.

Moreover, for the first time, scientists have discovered the presence of warm water beneath Antarctica’s fastest melting glaciers – the Thwaites Glaciers or known as the “doomsday glacier”. If these waters are causing glacier melt in Thwaites, it could release a mass of water roughly the size of Great Britain or Florida, and raise global sea levels by nearly 1m.

Study also shows that Arctic will see ice-free summers by 2050, which will result in “devastating consequences for the Arctic ecosystem”. The loss of the Arctic ice cover will immediately increases the fraction of open water in the ice-covered area and thus drives up absorption of more heat in the ocean.

4. Sea level rising faster – extreme floods to hit US cities “almost daily” by 2100

A new report says that the pace of SLR along a large part of the US coastline continues to accelerate since around 2013. Among the US coastline, the Gulf Coast has recorded a nearly 8mm increase per year, which is double the global average.

Another piece of research shows that If sea levels continue to rise at current rates, US coastal cities could experience “once in a lifetime” extreme flood events almost daily by 2100, which are currently occurring once every 50 years. The research also finds that the risk of extreme flooding events at present day could double every 5 years on average if sea levels continue to rise as expected, with low-latitude areas most at risk.

5. Asia has 11 of the 15 most at risk cities from SLR

Asian countries are most at risk of SLR. 11 out of the 15 cities most at-risk of coastal flooding are Asian cities, some of which are significant financial and trade centre including Tokyo, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta. In China, USD348bn of GDP and 7.8mn people are at risk from SLR.

11/15 most at risk cities from sea level rise are in Asia…

…USD2.25trn of Asian revenue is at risk from coastal flooding

In fact, MSCI research shows Asia has the highest exposure to coastal flooding risk by far, both in terms of the number of facilities, and the level of potential damage at company sites. The research identified 6,257 facilities at risk in Asia, with USD2.25trn of revenue at risk by 2050. Nearly 14% of Asian facilities are in flood-prone areas – which is 2x the global average.

Bear in mind that the impact of SLR is going to look worse if the risks of storm surges are factored in. As shown in CWR’s guest-authored CLSA report last year, the risks of storm surges as well as SLR will hit the Greater Bay Area (GBA) key sectors as soon as 2030 – including finance, logistics, real estate and entertainment.

There is also bad news for the Himalayas. Research shows that global warming has caused glaciers in high-mountain Asia with an increasing size and number of glacial lakes dammed by glaciers or their debris. When these dams fail, a glacial lake outburst flood such as avalanche could occur and cause major flooding downstream.

6. Global infrastructure at risk from coastal flooding – 80 airports will be under water by 2100

As sea level continues to rise, repeated disruptions by coastal flooding will intensify existing impacts on infrastructure, bringing greater impacts to the economy. An analysis by World Resources Institute (WRI) found that an estimated 80 airports globally would be under water with 1m of SLR by 2100, if emissions are not reduced. Even if the warming is limited to 2oC, about 0.5m of SLR is still going to flood 44 airports worldwide.

GBA very exposed to coastal flooding – 4/ 7 airports & 43/ 50 ports

But the risks are even closer than 2100. CWR estimated that by 2030, extreme storm tides of 5.87m would disrupt 4 out of 7 GBA airports, and 43 of its 50 ports. Some of these include the world’s top 10 busiest container ports such as Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Therefore, effective and long-term adaptation strategies should be made to tackle the rising flood risk. A new study shows that 95% of coastal flooding damages can be avoided through moderate greenhouse gas emission mitigation and by rising dykes where human settlements and economically important areas exist along the coastline. On the other hand, no-sense climate strategies will leave key assets and infrastructure exposed.


7. Climate change is fuelling droughts & hurricanes

Climate change is drying up freshwater resources globally. England’s total water supply is forecast to decrease by 7% by 2045 due to climate change. In the US, the Colorado River that feeds 40 million people could lose about one-fourth of its flow by 2050. Then there is the “megadrought” under way in the US, which is said to be exacerbated by global warming. The drought has been affecting a vast region of western US including California, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico for nearly two decades now.

2020 Atlantic hurricane season predicted to be ~140% above average

At the same time, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to be more active than usual, with about 140% above the average season. Of the 16 named storms, eight may become hurricanes and four may reach major hurricane strength (Saffir/Simpson category 3-4-5).

8. Counterproductive “climate solution” – LNG powered shipping vessels are worse for the climate

International shipping is the sixth largest emitter of CO2 if treated as a country, roughly the same as Germany. To cut emissions, more ship operators are increasingly turning to liquified natural gas (LNG) as a purported climate solution as it improves air quality and limits CO2.

LNG can emit 82% more GHG than conventional marine fuel oil…

…need to be careful with “solutions”

However, a shocking new report shows that this is indeed counterproductive as ships powered by LNG are worse for the climate than those powered by conventional fuels. The research claims that the most commonly used LNG engine in cruise ships and cargo vessels today emits as much as 82% more greenhouse gas over the short-term compared to conventional marine fuel oil. These LNG engine allowed 3.7% of methane to pass unburned through the engine and slipped into the atmosphere, which is higher than the leakage across the rest of the natural gas sector combined of 2.3%. If ships were to continue to uptake LNG as a marine fuel, emissions could be even worse than business as usual.

Need a big picture of the climate & water risks to avoid confusion

New research on climate and water risks comes out nearly every day. These research are interlinked but sometimes also contradictory to each other.

Just last month, a US research claimed that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amount of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries last year despite China having higher-than-average water levels upstream. This research has certainly caught a lot of media attention. However, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) says that it is “premature” to blame Chinese dams for the Mekong drought and more evidence is necessary.

A new analysis by MRC’s shows that “the 2019 drought in the downstream was due largely to insufficient rainfall during the wet season with a delayed arrival and early departure of monsoon rains and an El Nino event that created an abnormally higher temperature and higher evapotranspiration”. To see more findings, please click here.

Therefore, we all need to wise up and be cautious when interpreting climate and water related news on the media. Having a big picture in mind on how these risks come “from mountain to ocean” will also help to avoid confusion.

“…our chaotic global management of the pandemic also warns us that we must better prepare for the climate crisis”

Yes, it is a critical time for all of us to fight COVID-19 but our chaotic global management of the pandemic also warns us that we must better prepare for the climate crisis. The above 8 risks show we can’t let up on our climate actions, even with the pandemic.


Further Reading

  • HK Submerged? Is This Map For Real? – Rising sea level is a catastrophe waiting to happen but we have to avoid alarmism & choose the right map to visualise the risks. Getting the right scenarios also matter. Find out more in our review
  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
  • Metamorphosis! Hard Truths & Unicorns – With blanket disruption globally, we are forced to rethink our future. The pandemic has presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to morph toward business unusual, but can we take advantage? CWR’s Debra Tan ponders
  • 5 Trends For The Year Of The Rat – Will the rat bring more outbreaks or will we get sunk like a drowned rat by water and climate risks? Or can we stay ahead with our wits and cunning to win the rat race? Find out what the lunar new year has in store for us in our 5 trends
  • Thirsty And Underwater: Rising Risks In Greater Bay Area – How will water & climate risks, including rising sea levels & droughts, threaten the already water-stressed Greater Bay Area (GBA)? CWR’s Tan & Mirando explain in their latest CLSA report and highlight companies’ failure in climate risk disclosures
  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand

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  • The Future Of Finance – HKGFA’s Dr. Ma Jun believes in post-COVID times, investors & bankers should expect more emphasis on environmental disclosure by regulators, which will pave the way for higher quality green finance products
  • ESG Doomsday Preppers – Many laughed at Doomsday preppers but who is laughing now as companies integrating ESG outperform during the crisis? ADMCF’s Alison Lee explores why this is & the future direction
  • Top 10 Responsible Investment Trends In China In 2020 – With their finger on the pulse, SynTao Green Finance runs through 10 key trends on responsible investing in China in 2020
  • Asia, Why On Earth Would We Leave Our Future To G7? – With G7’s absent leadership & inability to plan for pandemics, CWR’s Debra Tan calls for Asia to step-up & lead the global fight against our climate crises. Tycoons, think about it – what’s the point of building empires that will kill your grandchildren?
Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
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