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2020 in review: climate impacts in the least developed countries

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Evolving and overlapping global crises hit the world’s most vulnerable nations the hardest. Now, more than ever, world leaders must demonstrate solidarity and support with concrete action.

Question: In all of recorded history, did 2020…

  1. Tie as the warmest year ever for global surface temperatures?
  2. Register as the warmest year ever for ocean heat?
  3. See the worst Atlantic hurricane season, producing the most named storms ever?

Answer: All the above.

While COVID-19 dominated 2020’s headlines, and rightly so, another emergency wreaked havoc in the background. As the pandemic ravaged the world, climate impacts continued to break records, mostly affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The least developed countries (LDCs), home to one billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, have contributed the least to climate change yet suffer the worst from its impacts. In 2020 alone:

  • People of the Solomon Islands have been spared from any COVID-19 deaths, but almost 30 lost their lives to Cyclone Harold
  • Monsoons in south Asia left an indelible mark. Floods submerged almost a quarter of Bangladesh and nearly a million homes were inundated. Five million people were affected and at least 54 died, most of them children
  • Record flooding in Sudan in August and September devastated communities across the country; 100 people died and over 500,000 were displaced
  • The August flash floods in Yemen killed at least 172 people and damaged infrastructure, including UNESCO-listed world heritage sites, and
  • The heaviest floods in more than a century displaced thousands of Ugandans from their homes along the shoreline of Lake Victoria.

These are just snapshots of the loss and damage caused by climate-related disasters in LDCs. And they are testament to an ever-worsening trend: over the last 50 years, 69% of worldwide deaths caused by climate-related disasters were in LDCs (despite being hit by 18% of disasters and home to only 13% of the world’s population).

Alongside unprecedented biodiversity loss, rising inequalities and crippling debt, by 2030 climate change could push more than 130 million people in developing countries (PDF) below the extreme poverty line. COVID-19 could push a further 100 million to 150 million people (PDF) over this threshold by the year end.

Overlapping crises

Preliminary analysis (PDF) shows that, as of 15 September 2020, 51.6 million people globally have been directly affected by a combination of floods, droughts, or storms and COVID-19. Over 3,000 people have been killed.

The huge overlap between the pandemic and climate-related disasters demonstrates the need for a multi-layered response, not least because of the compounded vulnerability faced by communities in LDCs.

For this reason, LDCs are calling for solidarity and support from world leaders from developed countries. LDCs are concerned about shrinking overseas development assistance (ODA), and developed counties failing to meet their climate finance commitments.

They are also concerned that COVID-19-recovery packages and economic stimulus plans are not placing people, climate and nature at their core.

A new tool tracking G20 stimulus packages shows a troubling trend: G20 governments have pledged US$151 billion in support of fossil fuels, with only 20% of those policies making financial support conditional on green requirements, such as setting climate targets or implementing pollution reduction plans.

Action, now

It comes as no surprise then that LDCs are pushing hard for strong climate action in 2021, especially in terms of increasing adaptive capabilities and enhancing resilience, reducing the loss and damage caused by climate change, and calling for increased climate finance.

At the ‘Thimphu Ambition Summit: Momentum for a 1.5°C World’, leaders from vulnerable countries, led by Bhutan, made an urgent and united call for climate action. Between now and 2030, developed countries must ramp up measures to close the emissions gap.

And these must be big steps, big enough to drive transformative change across all aspects of society and for shifting financial flows to align with low-carbon, climate-resilient development pathways.

The pandemic has laid bare the need – and opportunity – to put resilience at the centre of macroeconomic fundamentals, to advance a truly green and resilient economy, rather than just responding to the great and growing array of non-financial external shocks.

2020 showed, more starkly than ever, that crises do not happen in siloes; we cannot deal with them singly, in isolation.

In this ‘super year’, when decisions taken (both at the multilateral and national levels) will shape outcomes for climate, nature and people for decades to come, we must push for solutions that, together, can tackle the world’s evolving and overlapping crises.

About the author

Gabrielle Swaby (gabrielle.swaby@iied.org), researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group