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Climate Change Tracker: 2020 was the joint warmest year ever recorded

According to the European Union’s Earth Observation Programme, 2020 was the warmest year on record, tying with the previous record-holder, 2016

2020 was the warmest year on record. (Photo: Istockphoto)
2020 was the warmest year on record. (Photo: Istockphoto)

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All through 2020, various international science organizations, including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), has been warning that the past year was on track to being one of the warmest years ever recorded. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) of the European Union’s (EU) Earth Observation Programme announced today that 2020 is now the warmest year on record. It is tied with 2016, which held the previous record for the warmest year. The C3S also said that 2020 was the warmest year on record for all of Europe.

In early December, the WMO, in its provisional State Of The Climate In 2020 report, had said that 2020 was on track to be one of the three warmest years on record. It also said that the past six years (2015-2020) have been the six warmest. This also makes 2011-2020 the warmest decade on record.

The C3S announcement confirms what many climate watchers had been suspecting—that not only was 2020 one of the warmest years, but the hottest year. It also confirms what the WMO report had said, which is that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 continued to rise through 2020. The C3S satellite data revealed that these concentrations increased at about 2.3ppm (parts per million)/year, peaking in May at a record high of 413.1ppm.

It should be noted that even as recently as 1970, atmospheric CO2 was at around 325ppm. In fact, at no other time in last 800,000 years has the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere been this high. Comparable atmospheric concentrations can be found Earth's pre-history; over 3 million years ago, when the planet’s temperature was 2-3 degrees Celsius higher than today. “While carbon dioxide concentrations have risen slightly less in 2020 than in 2019, this is no cause for complacency. Until the net global emissions reduce to zero, CO2 will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and drive further climate change,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, Director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS).

The C3S found that both 2020 and 2016 were 0.6 degree Celsius warmer than the 1981-2010 baseline. Last year, the Earth also passed the dubious milestone of being 1.25 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times (1850-1900). This means that there is little time left to achieve the climate change mitigation target of keeping global heating down to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Just as the WMO report had observed, 2020’s record heat matched that of 2016, despite the fact that the latter year began with a strong El Niño event. This is a weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean, which added to global heat that year. 2020, in contrast, saw the onset of cooling La Niña (a weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean) conditions, and was still as warm as 2016.

“2020 stands out for its exceptional warmth in the Arctic and a record number of tropical storms in the North Atlantic. It is no surprise that the last decade was the warmest on record, and is yet another reminder of the urgency of ambitious emissions reductions to prevent adverse climate impacts in the future,” said Carlo Buontempo, Director, C3S.

The C3S announcement, taken together with reports that the Earth is warming faster than we thought, should add to the urgent need for climate action in 2021. Time is running out.


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