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2021 ranks as fifth hottest year on record as global greenhouse gas emissions rise

A Cal Fire firefighter from the Lassen-Modoc Unit watches as an air tanker makes a fire retardant drop on the Dixie Fire as trees burn on a hillside on August 18, 2021 near Janesville, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The last seven years have been the hottest on record, with 2021 ranking as the fifth hottest year as the world continues to see a rise in climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report released on Monday.

The annual findings by the Copernicus Climate Change Service, an intergovernmental agency that supports European climate policy, show a continuing upward trend in temperatures as fossil fuel emissions trap more heat in the atmosphere.

“2021 was yet another year of extreme temperatures with the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, not to mention the unprecedented high temperatures in North America,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus service.

Muddy water flows into Alaknanda river two days after a part of a Himalayan glacier broke off sending a devastating flood downriver in Tapovan area of the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.
Rishabh R. Jain | AP

Human-caused climate change has fueled hotter temperatures and drier conditions across the world, and is widely seen by scientists as contributing to worsening disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and heatwaves.

Last year also closed with the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which resulted in an agreement among nearly 200 nations to accelerate the fight against climate change and commit to tougher climate pledges.

Despite new pledges on methane gas pollution, deforestation and coal financing, among other things, scientists and legal experts have argued the summit resulted in only incremental progress inadequate to address the severity of the crisis.

Children play on the splash pad at Discovery Green during a heatwave in Houston, Texas, on Thursday, June 17, 2021.
Callaghan O’Hare | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Some parts of the world warmed more than others last year. For instance, Europe experienced a summer of extremes with blistering heatwaves in the Mediterranean and floods in central Europe. The 10 hottest years for Europe have all occurred since 2000 and the seven hottest years were all between 2014 and 2020.

In North America, a severe heatwave in June broke maximum temperature records and resulted in the warmest June on record for the continent, the agency said.

Extremely dry conditions also exacerbated wildfires throughout July and August, especially in several Canadian provinces and the U.S. West. The Dixie Fire became the second-largest fire in California’s history, burning nearly 1 million acres and resulting in poor air quality for thousands of people across the country.

Cars sit abandoned on the flooded Major Deegan Expressway following a night of extremely heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 2, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

“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,” Buontempo said.

Last year was 0.3 degrees Celsius above the average for the period between 1991 and 2020 and between 1.1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius above the average for the preindustrial period between 1850 and 1900, according to the agency.

Keeping global temperatures from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius – the level set by the 2015 Paris Agreement that scientists say will avert the worst effects of climate change – would require the world to nearly halve greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The world is on track to experience a temperature rise of 2.4 degrees Celsius by the century’s end, according to a scientific data tracker.

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