The world is on course for a “catastrophic” temperature rise this century, the United Nations has warned.
Global temperatures in 2020 were among the highest on record and it rivalled 2016 as the hottest year ever, according to international data compiled by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
The heat came even as a global economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic cut deeply into emissions from fossil fuels, adding evidence that carbon dioxide concentrations already in the atmosphere have set the planet on a warming track.
The relentless pace of climate change is “destroying lives”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday as the WMO said 2011 to 2020 was the warmest decade recorded.
“We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3-5 [degrees Celsius] this century … making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority,” Guterres said.
The WMO report included data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK Met Office, both of which ranked 2020 as the second-warmest year on record, as a cooling trend called La Nina failed to tame global temperatures.
WMO consolidation of 5 major temperature datasets:
🌡️2020 one of the 3 warmest years on record, rivalled 2016 for the top spot
2011-2020 warmest decade
Warmest 6 years all since 2015
— World Meteorological Organization (@WMO) January 14, 2021
The La Nina cool phase of the Pacific Ocean surface temperatures cycle “put a brake on the heat only at the very end of the year”, the WMO said.
It said the average global temperature in 2020 was about 14.9 degrees Celsius (58.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
‘La Nina to continue’
The WMO said the standout weather features of 2020 were the sustained heat and wildfires in Siberia and the low Arctic sea ice extent, plus the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season.
La Nina is expected to continue into early to mid-2021.
“It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016 when we saw one of the strongest El Nino warming events on record. This is a clear indication that the global signal from human-induced climate change is now as powerful as the force of nature,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
“Heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere remain at record levels and the long lifetime of carbon dioxide, the most important gas, commits the planet to future warming.”
The WMO will publish its State of the Climate in 2020 final report in March.