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Call for decisive climate action as 50th Earth Day takes place amid pandemic

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Decisive action is needed to tackle the accelerating climate crisis, the United Nations has warned on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Reports released to mark the annual celebration of environmental protection, which is being held online due to the coronavirus pandemic, warn that the last five years were the hottest on record globally, while 2019 was Europe’s hottest year.

While the world’s focus is on the Covid-19 crisis, the UN is also warning of the deeper environmental emergency the planet faces, and urging countries to use the recovery from the pandemic to tackle climate change.

Polling of 28,000 people from 14 countries by Ipsos Mori suggests nearly two-thirds (65%) support prioritising climate change in the recovery from the economic crisis caused by dealing with the pandemic, with a majority of Britons (58%) backing such a move.

The survey also revealed that globally seven in 10 people (71%) think climate change is as serious a crisis in the long term as Covid-19, with two-thirds of UK respondents in agreement.

It comes as a report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released on Earth Day confirms the past five years have been the hottest on record globally.

Global average temperatures have increased by 1.1C since pre-industrial times, and levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are at record highs, the state of the climate 2015-2019 report found.

Sea level rises are accelerating, Arctic sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets continue to decline, there has been an abrupt decrease in Antarctic sea ice, and more heat is being trapped in the oceans, harming life there, while heatwaves and wildfires are becoming an ever greater risk.

A separate report from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), reveals that for Europe, 2019 was the hottest year recorded, while 11 of the 12 warmest years have occurred since 2000.

In the past five years, average temperatures in Europe have been almost 2C warmer than the levels in the benchmark period of the latter 19th century.

WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said: “Whilst Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human wellbeing, ecosystems and economies for centuries.

“We need to flatten both the pandemic and climate change curves.

“We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against Covid-19.”

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the recovery from the pandemic must be turned into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.

While the impact of Covid-19 is “immediate and dreadful” and countries must work together to save lives and lessen the consequences of the pandemic, he said there is “another, even deeper emergency – the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis”.

He said: “We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and existential threat of climate disruption.”

He called for the huge amounts of money that will be spent on recovery to deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.

Where taxpayers’ money is spent rescuing businesses, it should be tied to achieving green jobs and growth, he said, and should flow to sustainable sectors – suggesting he does not want countries to bail out the struggling oil industry.

Fuel subsidies must end and polluters must start paying for their pollution, he warned, adding the financial system and all areas of public policymaking and infrastructure must factor in climate risks and opportunities.

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