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The last seven years were the hottest on record, new climate report finds

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By Josephine Joly  with AP
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Seen in a long camera exposure, the Caldor Fire burns on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Eldorado National Forest, Calif.
Seen in a long camera exposure, the Caldor Fire burns on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Eldorado National Forest, Calif.   -   Copyright  Noah Berger / AP

The European Union's climate monitoring programme, Copernicus, has released a new report on Monday that finds that the last seven years were the hottest on record.

Globally, 2021 was 0.3 degrees Celsius higher than the average temperature between 1991 and 2020, and it was also a huge 1.1 to 1.2 degrees above the pre-industrial level of 1850-1900.

The report also noted record concentrations of greenhouse gases.

"2021 appears as a very hot year in our ranking, it's about rank five," revealed Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

In the last seven years, only 2015 and 2018 were cooler. Many experts are now convinced that global warming is contributing to the increase in numbers of natural disasters observed in recent years: extreme storms, a heat dome in North America with nearly 50 degrees Celsius recorded in Canada, and other events.

"Prominent features are part of North America, particularly a bit of the United States and Canada, with high anomalies — hot, there is also hot anomalies in North Africa and the Middle East, and we have some cold anomalies in, particularly the western part of Siberia," Peuch added.

Last summer was also the hottest on record in Europe, with the mercury touching 49 degrees Celsius in Sicily and a heatwave that contributed to devastating fires, especially in southern Europe.

The changing climate doesn't just mean higher temperatures, it also triggers extreme weather events, like the devastating floods seen in Germany and other parts of Europe over the summer.

It's no surprise that the last seven years have shown this upward trend — carbon emissions are rising and therefore so are temperatures.

But the scientists at Copernicus have found something unexpected: for the second year in a row, the growth rate of methane in the atmosphere was twice the normal level. It reached an annual record of approximately 1,876 ppb.

"Yes, the growth rate, so that is the increase in one year of the methane concentration in the atmosphere is double of what we would have expected. So that's a worry because methane is a very important greenhouse gas, and that's a worry because we don't understand exactly what's going on," Peuch explained.

Methane only lasts a dozen years in the air while carbon dioxide sticks around for centuries.

Per molecule, methane traps dozens of times the heat of carbon dioxide. There is 200 times more carbon dioxide in the air than methane.

Copernicus is not the only body to monitor the world's temperatures.

In the US, NOAA and NASA release reports on the climate, and so do the UK Met Office, World Meteorological Organization, and the Japanese Meteorological Agency, among others.

But they all come to the same conclusion.

"So that data set is one of several data sets monitoring global temperature, and they all agree that the world has warmed over the last century, and they all generally agree that the last few years have been the hottest on record. There might be some nuances for individual years because different data sets use different methods for constructing their average," said Professor Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impact Research at the Met Office and Exeter University.

"But it's very clear the last few years have been the hottest on record, and the important thing from this report is that the last seven years, in particular, are very substantially warmer than anything previously seen."

However, 2021 was not the hottest on record. In Europe, the annual average temperature didn't even make the top ten — although it did record its hottest ever summer.

Thankfully, the La Nina oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon is currently cooling the planet — but it won't last forever.

"Currently, we're in what's called a 'La Nina' phase, which is kind of a cool phase of the El Nino cycle. So that's why last year was not the hottest on record, even though CO2 is higher than ever. Last year was not the hottest on record because the world was slightly cold naturally, because of La Nina, but this will go away. The important thing is to look at the long-term trends, and the last few years have clearly been warmer than before," Betts went on.

Forest fires, flooding, and heatwaves are just some of the extreme weather events the world can expect to become more regular as climate change accelerates.

Scientists, activists, and an increasing number of politicians say these climatic events should encourage companies to redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But Betts says it might not be enough to reduce emissions and governments should be ready to adapt.

"There are two ways in which we need to respond to climate change urgently. One is that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases to stop the buildup in the atmosphere," he suggested.

"The other is that we now need to prepare more for extreme weather and adapt to the climate change that we've already put in place. Climate change is now happening. We're seeing more extreme weather of many types. We're not prepared for the increased severity and extremity of extreme weather. So we need to be better prepared."

Peuch also added that scientific modelling has become more accurate and precise, and that, "because of that, we can show that if measures are taken, we expect the atmosphere not to go too far into uncharted territory."

At the last COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, participants pledged to limit any temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, although meeting that target is far from certain.