The last seven years have been the hottest in the modern record with 2021 being the fifth-warmest due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, causing a string of natural disasters.
The new data released by Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth monitoring programme, showed that last year global average temperatures were 1.1-1.2C above the pre-industrial average (1850-1900), making it slightly cooler than 2019 and 2020 but still much warmer than preceding decades.
Climate change was responsible for the rising temperatures, said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of atmosphere monitoring at Copernicus.
“Carbon dioxide and methane concentrations are continuing to increase year on year and without signs of slowing down,” said Peuch. “These greenhouse gases are the main drivers of climate change.”
Atmospheric levels of methane, a warming gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, surged last year — rising at the fastest pace since satellite measurements began.
Human activities are a significant source of methane, as a result of fossil fuel extraction, waste management, and cattle farming, but natural sources of methane, such as from wetlands, also seem to be on the rise.
The reasons for the increase are not yet well understood, Copernicus said.
Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also rose to their highest average in the modern record in 2021, reaching 414 parts per million, according to the new data. That represents an increase of nearly 50 per cent compared to pre-industrial levels.
As economic activity surged last year, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels rose an estimated 4.9 per cent, following a 5.4 per cent decline in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions, according to calculations from the Cicero Center for International Climate Research in Oslo.
“It was quite surprising the number of records we saw broken in 2021,” said Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, pointing to examples such as forest fires across Europe and the heatwave in Canada.
“As we get a warmer atmosphere, it means those extreme events are getting more and more likely,” she added. “We know emissions are continuing to rise, so the expectation is that we will see more records broken in 2022.”
Last summer was the hottest ever recorded in Europe, and the continent experienced several weather-related disasters including devastating floods in Germany and Belgium in July.
The region also experienced heatwaves across the Mediterranean, with a new maximum temperature record for Europe of 48.8C set in Sicily.
Temperatures across the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Greenland were also unusually hot last year. Severe wildfires in North American contributed to large emissions of carbon dioxide from burning forests — around 83m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, the highest ever recorded.
Separate climate analysis for 2021 temperature data from the UK Met office and from the US NOAA are expected in the coming days.
Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said that temperatures would continue to rise without urgent emissions cuts.
“These events are a stark reminder of the need to change our ways, take decisive and effective steps toward a sustainable society, and work towards reducing net carbon emissions,” he said.
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