Nairobi, Jan 15 – The year 2020 was one of the three warmest on record, and rivalled 2016 for the top spot, according to a consolidation of five leading international datasets by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). A naturally occurring cooling climate phenomenon, La Niña, put a brake on the heat only at the very end of the year.

All five datasets surveyed by WMO concur that 2011-2020 was the warmest decade on record, in a persistent long-term climate change trend. The warmest six years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019 and 2020 being the top three. The differences in average global temperatures among the three warmest years – 2016, 2019 and 2020 – are indistinguishably small.  The average global temperature in 2020 was about 14.9°C, 1.2 (± 0.1) °C above the pre-industrial (1850-1900) level.

“The confirmation by the World Meteorological Organization that 2020 was one of the warmest years on record is yet another stark reminder of the relentless pace of climate change, which is destroying lives and livelihoods across our planet. Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented weather extremes in every region and on every continent. We are headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top priority for everyone, everywhere,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

“The exceptional heat of 2020 is despite a La Niña event, which has a temporary cooling effect,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. “It is remarkable that temperatures in 2020 were virtually on a par with 2016, when we saw one of the strongest El Niño 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 Taalas.

“The temperature ranking of individual years represent only a snapshot of a much longer-term trend. Since the 1980s each decade has been warmer than the previous one. 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,” he added.

The La Niña event which began in late 2020 is expected to continue into early to mid-2021.  La Niña and El Niño effects on average global temperature are typically strongest in the second year of the event, and the extent to which the continued cooling effects of La Niña in 2021 may temporarily diminish the overall long-term warming trend in 2021 remains to be seen.