Jan 8, 2021 - World

Analysis: 2020 ties 2016 as warmest year on record

Wildfires near California bridge
Bidwell Bar Bridge surrounded by fire during the Bear fire in Oroville, Calif. on September 9, 2020. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Last year tied 2016 as the warmest year ever recorded, capping the end of the warmest decade on record, according to data released Friday by the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service.

By the numbers: "2020 was 0.6°C warmer than the standard 1981-2010 reference period and around 1.25°C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial period," Copernicus said in a summary of their data. The last six years are the six warmest on record, they said.

Threat level: "It is notable that 2020 matches the 2016 record despite a cooling La Niña, whereas 2016 was a record year that began with a strong warming El Niño event," Copernicus said.

Why it matters: The latest evidence of the march of global warming comes at the beginning of what could be a critical year for climate policy in the U.S. and worldwide.

Two of the key reasons why...

  • In the U.S., the incoming Biden administration is vowing to begin work on a suite of domestic emissions-cutting efforts and fresh engagement with other countries.
  • Meanwhile, analysts are looking for details from China, by far the world's largest carbon emitter, about how it will meet its vague pledge last year to have its emissions peak by 2030 and reach "carbon neutrality" by 2060.

The big picture: The EU data arrives as the world is nowhere near on track for the steep emissions cuts that would be consistent with the aims of the Paris climate deal.

  • "[T]he world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century — far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing 1.5°C," a major UN analysis last month found.

What's next: Copernicus is among several agencies that conduct analyses of temperature records that date back to the late 1800s.

  • Key U.S. climate data agencies — NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — will release their own data next week, per The Washington Post.
  • "They are expected to rank the year as either the first or second-warmest on record, due to slightly different ways of measuring global temperatures," the Post reports.
Go deeper