Science

2021 was Earth's 5th-hottest year on record, according to European Union scientists

Last year was the world's fifth hottest on record, while levels of planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere hit new highs in 2021, European Union scientists said.

As greenhouse gas emissions change the planet's climate, the long-term warming trend has continued

The European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said in a report Monday that the last seven years were the world's warmest 'by a clear margin,' and the average global temperature in 2021 was 1.1-1.2 C above 1850–1900 levels. (Shutterstock/Edmund O'Connor)

Last year was the world's fifth hottest on record, while levels of planet-warming carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere hit new highs in 2021, European Union scientists said.

The EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said in a report on Monday that the last seven years were the world's warmest "by a clear margin" in records dating back to 1850, and the average global temperature in 2021 was 1.1-1.2 C above 1850-1900 levels.

The hottest years on record were 2020 and 2016.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries committed to try to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 C, the level scientists say would avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That would require emissions to roughly halve by 2030, but so far they have charged higher.

As greenhouse gas emissions change the planet's climate, the long-term warming trend has continued. Climate change exacerbated many of the extreme weather events sweeping the world in 2021, from floods in Europe, China and South Sudan, to wildfires in Siberia and the United States.

This graph shows the annual global-average surface temperature time series compared to pre-industrial levels. (Copernicus)

"These events are a stark reminder of the need to change our ways, take decisive and effective steps toward a sustainable society and work toward reducing net carbon emissions," C3S director Carlo Buontempo said.

Global levels of CO2 and methane, the main greenhouse gases, continued to climb, and both hit record highs in 2021. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 414.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2021, up by around 2.4 ppm from 2020, the scientists said.

C3S said levels of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, have jumped in the last two years, but the reasons why are not fully understood. Emissions of methane range from oil and gas production and farming, to natural sources like wetlands.

After a temporary dip in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, provisional data suggest global CO2 emissions rebounded by 4.9 per cent in 2021.

Records and disasters

Last summer was Europe's hottest on record, CS3 said, following a warm March and unusually cold April that had decimated fruit crops in countries including France and Hungary.

In July and August, a Mediterranean heat wave stoked intense wildfires in countries including Turkey and Greece. Sicily set a new European temperature high of 48.8 C, a record awaiting official confirmation.

In July, more than 200 people died when torrential rain triggered deadly flooding in western Europe. Scientists concluded that climate change had made the floods at least 20 per cent more likely.

Also that month, floods in China's Henan province killed more than 300 people. In California, a record-smashing heat wave was followed by the second-biggest wildfire in the state's history, decimating land and belching out air pollution.

In Canada, the town of Lytton, B.C., was wiped out that month after a wildfire engulfed it. Parts of the province also shattered heat records last summer during an intense and persistent heat wave.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will release their climate findings on Wednesday.

—with files from CBC

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