Climate change produced another record-breaking year of extreme weather in Europe in 2021, triggering catastrophic flooding and the hottest summer on record, according to scientists at the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
Summer temperatures in Europe last year were one degree Celsius above the average of the previous 20 years, and the rainfall that battered Germany and Belgium broke records, the scientists said in their annual European State of the Climate report. Globally, the last seven years have been the warmest since records began in 1850, with 2021 ranking sixth. There were worrying findings in terms of greenhouse emissions, too: concentrations of carbon dioxide and particularly methane continued to rise in the atmosphere.
“The continued increase in greenhouse gases is the main driver behind the global increase in temperatures,” said Freja Vamborg, senior scientist at Copernicus and the lead author of the report. “The key messages are forever repeated and will not change in the near future unless something changes radically.”
The report also painted a stark picture of climate change in the Arctic, with wildfires mostly from eastern Siberia contributing to the fourth highest amount of carbon emissions from such events in the region. At the same time, sea ice retreated to its 12th lowest since 1979, while the Greenland Sea saw its lowest coverage ever. Still, Arctic temperatures were less extreme than 2020 and were even colder than usual in some areas at certain times of the year.
Methane—which has 84 times the warming potential of CO2 over a short time frame—jumped by 16.5 parts per billion, marking a second consecutive year of sharp increases. The cause of the rise was unclear, the scientists said, though a large portion was likely attributable to rice and cattle farming, as well as the gas escaping from natural sinks.
“It’s certainly a big concern to see the rate of growth of methane almost double from what it was before 2020,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, who heads the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. He added that it was “very worrying” there was no sign of a reduction of CO2 concentrations either.
The Copernicus findings—based on measurements from satellites, ships, aircraft and weather stations around the world—come less than a month after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world may be on track to warm by more than 3 degrees Celsius, twice the Paris Agreement target. Such a rise in temperatures would painfully remake societies and life on the planet and flies in the face of years of net-zero commitments by countries in Europe and around the globe.
Those dramatic impacts were on full display last year, with floods in Western Europe causing hundreds of deaths and billions of euros worth of damage. The report said that those were triggered by record rainfall on July 14 landing on already saturated soils. The Mediterranean region, meanwhile, was buffeted by wildfires and some of the highest temperatures ever recorded, including a likely record of 48.8°C in Italy.
“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heat waves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
There were also some worrying signs that wind speeds fell, hampering the region’s ability to produce renewable electricity from turbines. The problem was particularly pronounced in parts of Western and central Europe, with some areas experiencing the lowest wind speeds for at least 42 years.
Scientists from Copernicus described 2021 as a “year of contrasts” with annual surface air temperatures barely above the average, yet the sea over parts of the Baltic and Mediterranean hit the highest warmest levels in almost three decades. Still, they said that the long-term trend was skyrocketing thermometer readings. The European continent has warmed by around 2°C from pre-industrial levels, while global temperatures have risen between 1.1°C and 1.2°C, the scientists said.
“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned that we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” said Mauro Facchini, an official at the European Commission, referring to the stretch goal of the Paris Agreement. “This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate related extreme events are already occurring in Europe.”
Photograph: View of the flooded city of Tartas, Landes, southwest of France. Photo credit: Mehdi Fedouah/AFP/Getty Images