Europe had its hottest year ever recorded in 2020, while globally the year tied with 2016 as the warmest on record, a signal of the increasing impact of climate change on the planet.
The global average temperature in 2020 was about 1.25C warmer than the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900, according to new data from Copernicus, the EU climate monitoring centre, which said the primary cause was higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
When compared with the 1981-2010 period, the global average temperature in 2020 was 0.6C warmer, while Europe was 1.6C above the 1981-2010 average.
The record heat pattern triggered deadly wildfires last year, including in Australia in January and across the US West Coast in September.
Samantha Burgess, deputy director at Copernicus Climate Change Service, said that 2020 was notable for significant warming in the Arctic. “This was a signal that developed last winter, continued through the spring, and the summer — it is a real signature for the year,” she said.
Parts of the Arctic and northern Siberia were more than 6C warmer during 2020 than their historic average, according to the Copernicus data. A temperature record of 38C was recorded in northern Russia, inside the Arctic Circle, in June.
The combination of rising temperatures, extreme wildfires and severe hurricanes and floods have all helped to make climate change a top priority for the world’s biggest emitters.
Dozens of world leaders have set new climate targets in recent months, including China, Japan and South Korea.
Even though global emissions of carbon dioxide declined by about 7 per cent last year because of reduced economic activity, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is still increasing.
Last year about 34bn tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted from burning fossil fuels, according to the Global Carbon Project, significantly lower than the previous year. However, those emissions still pushed carbon dioxide concentrations to historic highs, because the gas lingers in the atmosphere for decades.
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Europe also saw unusual heat during 2020, and was 0.4C warmer than 2019, which was the previous warmest year for the continent.
“The fact that Europe was so much warmer is very indicative of our atmosphere having more CO2 and being warmer than it otherwise would have been,” said Dr Burgess, adding that Europe was warming faster than the rest of the planet.
The warming trend in 2020 is even more significant because it occurred during a year when the La Niña weather pattern developed, typically associated with cooler temperatures.
The previous record for hottest year, set in 2016, was distinguished by the counterpart El Niño pattern that contributed to the temperatures that year.