Extreme weather and climate change across Asia in 2020 caused loss of thousands of life, displaced millions, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and wreaked a heavy toll on infrastructure and ecosystems.
Asia also saw that its Sustainable Development efforts threatened, with food and water insecurity, health risks and environmental degradation on the rise, according to a new multi-agency report “The State of the Climate in Asia 2020” coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The report underlines how every part of the continent was affected, from Himalayan peaks to low-lying coastal areas, from densely populated cities to deserts and from the Arctic to the Arabian seas.
In the forward, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said that floods, storms and droughts had significant impact in many Asian countries. It affected agriculture and food security, contributing to increased displacement and vulnerability of migrants, refugees, and displaced people, worsening health risks, and exacerbating environmental issues and losses of natural ecosystems.
“Combined, these impacts take a significant toll on long term sustainable development, and progress toward the UN 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals in particular,” he said.
The report combines input from a wide range of partners including the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and other UN agencies, national meteorological and hydrological services as well as leading scientists and climate centres. The report comes ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, as one of a series of regional analyses to inform decision- and policy-makers as well as regional and national investment.
UNESCAP Executive Secretary Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said; “amidst the pandemic, countries are being hit by a range of disasters and having to deal with the increasingly damaging impacts of climate change.”
Temperature: Asia had its warmest year on record in 2020. The mean temperature was 1.39 °C above the 1981–2010 average. There were many notable heat extremes, including a temperature of 38.0°C at Verkhoyansk, Russian Federation, provisionally the highest known temperature anywhere north of the Arctic Circle.
Precipitation: The East Asian and South Asian summer monsoons were both unusually active, This, combined with frequent tropical cyclones, caused floods and landslides, leading to loss of life and displacement in many countries.
Ocean warmth: Sea-surface temperature changes and ocean heat directly affect the ocean-atmosphere coupling and thus regional and global circulation, as well as marine life.
In 2020, average sea surface temperatures reached record high values in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.
Sea surface temperatures and ocean warming in and around Asia are increasing more than the global average – at three times the rate in the case of the Arabian sea.
Sea surface temperatures in parts of the Arctic Ocean have also been warming at three times the global average during the 1982-2020 period. The Barents sea, in the northern Arctic, in particular, is identified as a climate change hotspot, with sea-ice loss in turn leading to more ocean warming.
Sea ice extent: Arctic sea ice minimum extent (after the summer melt) in 2020 was the second lowest on the satellite record since 1979. The Eurasian shelf seas and the Northern Sea Route were completely ice-free in summer.
Sea level: Global average sea level has risen at a rate of 3.3 mm per year since the early 1990s. The North Indian Ocean and the Northwest Pacific Ocean are experiencing sea level rise significantly higher than the global mean.
Glacier retreat: High Mountain Asia is home to approximately 100 000 km2 of glaciers centred on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas. Glacier retreat is accelerating and is projected that glacier mass will decrease by 20% to 40% by 2050. This has major ramifications for global sea level, regional water cycles and local hazards (such as landslides and avalanches).
In countries such as Afghanistan, glacial meltwater has historically been essential for maintaining water supply in times of drought and so the projected reduction in glacial run-off has major implications for water security as well as for ecosystems.
Impact of extreme weather
In 2020 floods and storms affected about 50 million people in Asia and resulted in more than 5 000 fatalities. Tropical cyclones, floods and droughts induced an estimated average annual loss of several hundred billion dollars, according to ESCAP. Losses were estimated at approximately 238 billion dollars in China, 87 billion dollars in India and 83 billion dollars in Japan.
When the size of the economy is considered, the average annual loss is expected to be as high as 7.9 per cent of GDP for Tajikistan, 5.9 per cent of GDP for Cambodia and 5.8 per cent of GDP for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Displacement: Intense cyclones, monsoon rains and floods hit highly exposed and densely populated areas in South Asia and East Asia and led to the displacement of millions of people in China, Bangladesh, India, Japan, Pakistan, Nepal and Viet Nam in 2020.
Cyclone Amphan, one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded, hit the Sundarbans region between India and Bangladesh in May 2020 displacing 2.4 million people in India and 2.5 million people in Bangladesh.
Agriculture and food security: In 2020, 48.8 million people in South-East Asia, 305.7 million in South Asia and 42.3 million in West Asia are estimated to have been undernourished. Asia accounts for more than half of the global total.
Compared with 2019, the number of undernourished people in 2020 increased by 6% in South-East Asia and West Asia, and by 20% in South Asia. Climate-related disasters compounded the problem.
Environment; Glaciers retreat and the dwindling of freshwater resources will have major repercussions for future water security and ecosystems in Asia, and the decline of coral reefs will negatively affect food security. Mangroves provide coastal protection but are under pressure from human activities, increasing sea levels and water temperatures, as well as through change in the frequency and intensity of precipitation and storm patterns.
In 2019, approximately three fourths of mangroves in Asia were located in Bangladesh (24%), Myanmar (19%), India (17%) and Thailand (14%). Mangroves in Bangladesh, a low-lying state exposed to tropical storms, decreased by 19% from 1992 to 2019.
Though forest cover increased in Bhutan, China, India and Viet Nam between 1990 and 2018, it declined in Myanmar (26%), Cambodia (24%) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (12%).
Sustainable development: Asia is currently well placed to respond to extreme weather events and is among the regions with the greatest capacity for Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems (MHEWS).
But the costs of extreme events are rising, due in part to increasing exposure. A high proportion of existing critical infrastructures are in multi-hazard risk hotspots, which can lead to significant disruption in economic activity when natural disasters occur. For instance, about a third of energy power plants, fibre-optic cable networks and airports, and 42% of road infrastructure, are in multi-hazard risk hotspots in the Asia-Pacific.
Increased heat and humidity are forecast to lead to an effective loss of outdoor working hours, with a potential cost of many billions of dollars.
Asia has regressed on Sustainable Development Goal 13 (Climate Action) in most of its subregions, to varying degrees. The region is likely to miss the SDGs unless efforts are accelerated to build resilience.