A new report by Christian Aid, Counting the cost 2020: a year of climate breakdown identifies 15 of the most destructive climate disasters of the year.
Ten of those events cost $1.5 billion or more, with nine of them causing damage worth at least $5 billion. Most of these estimates are based only on insured losses, meaning the true financial costs are likely to be higher.
Among them is Storm Ciara which struck the UK, Ireland and other European countries in February costing $2.7 billion and killing 14. The UK’s Environment Agency issued 251 flood warnings.
While the report focuses on financial costs, which are usually higher in richer countries because they have more valuable property, some extreme weather events in 2020 were devastating in poorer countries, even though the price tag was lower. South Sudan, for example, experienced one of its worst floods on record, which killed 138 people and destroyed the year’s crops.
Some of the disasters hit fast, like Cyclone Amphan, which struck the Bay of Bengal in May and caused losses valued at $13 billion in just a few days. Other events unfolded over months, like floods in China and India, which had an estimated cost of $32 billion and $10 billion respectively.
Six of the ten most costly events took place in Asia, five of them associated with an unusually rainy monsoon. And in Africa, huge locust swarms ravaged crops and vegetation across several countries, causing damages estimated at $8.5 billion. The outbreak has been linked to wet conditions brought about by unusual rains fuelled by climate change.
But the impact of extreme weather was felt all over the world. In Europe, two extra-tropical cyclones, Ciara and Alex, had a combined cost of almost $6 billion. And the US suffered from both a record-breaking hurricane season and a record-breaking fire season adding up to more than $60 billion in damages.
Some less populated places also suffered the consequences of a warming world. In Siberia, a heatwave during the first half of the year set a record in the city of Verkhoyansk, with temperatures reaching 38°C. A few months later, on the other side of the world, heat and drought drove the fires in Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. While there were no human casualties reported from these events, the destruction of these areas has a great impact on biodiversity and the planet’s capacity to respond to a warmer world.
While climate change may have influenced all these events, many of the countries that bear little responsibility for global warming were affected
While climate change may have influenced all these events, many of the countries that bear little responsibility for global warming were affected. This includes Nicaragua, which was hit by hurricane Iota, the strongest storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, and the Philippines, where typhoons Goni and Vamco made landfall almost back-to-back.
These extreme events highlight the need for urgent climate action. The Paris Agreement, which set the goal of keeping temperature rise “well below” 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels, has just turned five years old. It is critical that countries commit to bold new targets ahead of the next climate conference, which will take place in Glasgow, in November 2021.
Report author, Dr Kat Kramer, Christian Aid’s climate policy lead:
“The Covid-19 pandemic has understandably been a major worry this year. For millions of people in vulnerable parts of the world, climate breakdown has compounded this. The good news is that, like the vaccine for Covid-19, we do know how to fix the climate crisis. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, boost clean energy investment and help those who are suffering on the front line.
“Whether it be floods in Asia, locusts in Africa or storms in Europe and the Americas, climate change has continued to rage in 2020. It is vital that 2021 ushers in a new era of activity to turn this tide. With President-elect Biden in the White House, social movements across the world calling for urgent action, post-Covid green recovery investment and a crucial UN climate summit hosted by the UK, there is a major opportunity for countries to put us on a path to a safe future.”
Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll, Climate Scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, India.
“2020 was exceptionally warm, as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned. We saw record temperatures in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, straddling between 30°C–33°C. These high temperatures had the characteristics of marine heat waves that might have led to the rapid intensification of the pre-monsoon cyclones Amphan and Nisarga. Amphan was one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal during the pre-monsoon season.”
Dr. Andrew King, Lecturer in Climate Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
“2020 was an extremely challenging year with the effects of severe weather events in many cases exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Severe floods and tropical cyclones impacted different regions of the world and for several of these events, particularly heatwaves and wildfires, there is evidence that human-caused climate change has contributed to their severity. Within this challenging landscape there is an opportunity to change direction and work towards a greener future, so we can limit global warming in line with the Paris Agreement, and avoid some of the most damaging consequences of climate change that we project under continued high greenhouse gas emissions.”
Dr. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Climate Scientist and Senior Lecturer at Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.
“Justlike 2019 before it, 2020 has been full of disastrous extremes. In the aftermath of the Australian wildfires, California once again burned. Wildfires and extreme heat ravaged Siberia, late-season extreme temperatures enveloped Europe, floods destroyed parts of Asia, and a record number of hurricanes were detected in the Atlantic Ocean. We have seen all this with a 1°C of global average temperature, highlighting the sensitive relationship between average conditions and extremes. Ultimately, the impacts of climate change will be felt via the extremes, and not averaged changes. Unfortunately, we can expect more years to look like 2020 – and worse – as global temperatures creep higher.”
Professor M. Shahjahan Mondal, Climate Scientist, Director of the Institute of Flood and Water Management, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
“Scientific evidence shows that the intensity of the tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal has been increasing over the past few years because of the temperature rise, and cyclone Amphan was one of the strongest ever recorded this year as a consequence. Moreover, the 2020 flood was one of the worst in the history [of Bangladesh], as more than a quarter of the country was under water.
“Not only is this linked with changing climatic conditions and global warming, but also linked with changing land-use patterns and deforestation. Unfortunately, the situation might be worsening in the coming years if we fail to achieve the Paris climate goal to restrict global warming under 1.5°C.”
Mitzi Jonelle Tan, Youth Activist at Fridays For Future, Philippines
“This year my home, the Philippines, has been hit by typhoon after typhoon, heartache after heartache. We usually suffer from typhoons, but this feels like a new level - four came within just one month. Typhoons Goni and Vamca destroyed thousands of homes and left many dead. Fighting to limit global warming to 1.5°C is crucial for my survival and for the survival of so many in the Global South.”
Dr. Shouro Dasgupta, Researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and Lecturer at the Università Ca' Foscari Venezia
"Vulnerability to the extremes of heat continues to increase in every region of the world, led by populations in Europe. Western Pacific, South-East Asia, and Africa have all experienced an increase in vulnerability of more than 10% since 1990. Additionally, 475 million additional exposures to heatwaves affecting vulnerable populations (over-65) were observed in 2019, representing some 2.9 billion additional days of heatwaves experienced. While heat-related mortality for those over-65 years increased by 53.7% between 2000 and 2018, resulting in 296,000 deaths in 2018.
“Climate-related extreme events result in direct deaths and injury, the spread of water-borne illness, and the destruction of habitats and infrastructure. These events often result in large economic costs, exacerbating the direct health impacts they produce. According to the Lancet Countdown, economic losses from climate-related extreme events were nearly five times greater in low-income economies than in high-income economies in 2019. More worryingly, just 4% of these losses were insured in low-income economies compared with 60% in high-income economies.
“In addition to the effects of global mitigation efforts on the health impacts of climate change and communities’ ability to adapt to it, there are also more immediate co-benefits of mitigation arising from the changes in harmful exposures and health-related behaviours that mitigation actions entail. If carefully planned and implemented, mitigation interventions will yield major health benefits, underlining the importance of a ‘health in all policies’ approach."