Earth’s temperature briefly rose above a crucial threshold that scientists have warned for decades could have catastrophic and irreversible impacts on the planet and its ecosystems, data shared by a prominent climate scientist shows.
For the first time, the global average temperature on Friday last week was more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels, according to preliminary data shared on X by Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, based in Europe.
The threshold was exceeded just temporarily and does not mean that the world is in a permanent state of warming above 2 degrees, but it is a symptom that a planet is steadily getting warmer and warmer and moving towards a longer-term situation where the climate crisis affects will be difficult – in some cases impossible – to reverse.
“Our best estimate is that this was the first day the global temperature was more than 2°C above 1850-1900 (or pre-industrial) levels at 2.06°C,” she wrote.
Burgess said in his post that global temperatures on Friday averaged 1.17 degrees above 1991-2020 levels, making it the warmest November 17 on record. But compared to pre-industrial times, before humans began burning fossil fuels on a large scale and changing the Earth’s natural climate, the temperature was 2.06 degrees warmer.
The breach of 2 degrees on Friday came two weeks before the start of the UN’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai, where countries will take stock of their progress towards the Paris climate agreement’s pledge to limit global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition to limit it to 1.5 degrees.
A day above 2 degrees of warming “doesn’t mean the Paris Agreement has been broken,” Burgess told CNN, “but highlights how we’re getting closer to internationally agreed limits. We can expect to see an increasing frequency of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees over the coming months and years.”
Copernicus’ data is preliminary and will take weeks to be confirmed with real-life observations.
The world already looks set to exceed 1.5 degrees of longer-term warming in the next few years, a threshold beyond which scientists say humans and ecosystems will struggle to adapt.
A UN report published on Monday found that even if countries met their current emission reduction pledges, the world would reach between 2.5 and 2.9 degrees of warming sometime this century.
But 1.5 is not a cliff edge for Earth – every fraction of a degree it warms above that, the worse the impacts will be. Warming to 2 degrees puts far more of the population at risk of deadly extreme weather and increases the likelihood that the planet will reach irreversible tipping points, such as the collapse of the polar ice caps and the mass death of coral reefs.
Richard Allan, professor of climate science at the University of Reading in the UK, called the breach a “canary in the coal mine” which “underscores the urgency of tackling greenhouse gas emissions.”
But he added that it was “entirely expected that individual days will exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial long before the actual 2 degrees Celsius target is breached over many years.”
The data comes on the heels of the hottest 12 months on record, and after a year of extreme weather events overshadowed by the climate crisis, including fires in Hawaii, floods in northern Africa and storms in the Mediterranean, all of which have claimed lives.
Scientists are increasingly expressing concern that temperature data is exceeding their predictions.
A series of reports examining the health of Earth’s climate and human actions to combat it in recent weeks show that the planet is headed for dangerous levels of warming and is not doing enough to mitigate or adapt to its impacts.
A UN report last week showed that according to countries’ climate plans, global-warming pollution in 2030 will still be 9% higher than it was in 2010. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world must reduce emissions by 45% by the end of this decade compared to 2010 to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. An increase of 9% means that the target is far away.
Another UN report also found that the world plans to blow the limit on fossil fuel production that would keep the lid on global warming. By 2030, countries plan to produce more than double the fossil fuel limit that would limit warming to 1.5 degrees.