2015 was the warmest year on record

Image courtesy NOAA

This visualization from NOAA shows much warmer than average or record warm temperatures across much of the globe in 2015, the warmest year on record.

The data are in, and 2015 was officially the warmest year globally ever recorded. We’ve been keeping temperature records since 1880. The last time the record was broken? 2014.

What’s interesting is just how much warmer 2015 was. The observed annual average surface temperature was more than 1.8° F (1° C) above the 19th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That’s already half the warming countries have agreed to as the international limit.

And 2015 was about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit warmer than 2014. That might seem small, but it’s actually huge when compared to the year-to-year differences observed in the record.

A strong El Niño, when the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms, contributed to the record warmth of 2015. But even compared to other El Niño years, 2015 set records. The agencies reporting the data attribute this to the long-term warming trend due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

As with all climate and weather data, the 2015 data shows some variability. Not all locations set high temperature records, and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean actually set a cold temperature record.

In the contiguous United States, 2015 was the second warmest year on record, with 2012 still holding the top spot. It was the 19th consecutive year that the annual average U.S. temperature was more than the 20th century average.

Building on the climate successes of 2015

2015 may well prove the warmest year globally on record, but it also saw unprecedented momentum on climate solutions – most notably, the completion of the U.S. Clean Power Plan and a landmark global climate agreement in Paris.

These two successes reflect growing public support globally and in the United States for stronger climate action, as well as rising investment and innovation by business toward low-carbon solutions.

Now we must turn the momentum of last year’s successes toward the next set of challenges – like putting these major new policies into action.

Here in the U.S., states have until September to tell the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) how they plan to implement the Clean Power Plan (or to request more time). Most observers think the courts are unlikely to block the Clean Power Plan while legal challenges are heard. So we expect state planning will proceed and are encouraged to see so many states exploring market-based approaches.

Internationally, countries must now put the Paris agreement into place. A high-level signing ceremony is set for Earth Day (April 22) in New York. And in May, governments will begin fleshing out details of the new Paris architecture, including critical transparency provisions and the process to periodically strengthen countries’ individual contributions.

Just after Paris, the United States submitted its latest biennial report, showing how current policies can put the country on track for its 2020 target (reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels), and lay the foundation for meeting the 2025 target (reducing emissions 26-28 percent). The report showed that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined 10 percent since 2005, while GDP is up 10 percent. For the first time, GDP has grown while energy use has fallen – about 2 percent.

Here are other things to watch for domestically and internationally in 2016:

Climate agreement signals to business to invest, innovate

A panel of business leaders discusses innovation and investment to meet climate challenges at a C2ES side event at COP 21 in Paris.

Fourteen major U.S.-based companies signed a C2ES-organized statement earlier this year urging the adoption of a new global climate agreement that would get all the major economies on board, provide stronger long-term direction, and hold countries accountable.

On December 12, 2015, nations reached a landmark climate agreement in Paris that accomplished exactly that aim.  

The Paris Agreement commits all countries to contribute their best efforts, sets up a system to hold them accountable, and promises stronger efforts to address the causes and consequences of climate change in the years ahead. It sends a signal to ramp up investment and innovation in a clean energy and clean transportation economy by:

  • Providing Long-Term Direction – The agreement calls for achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This goal, which is another way of expressing a progressive decarbonization of the global economy, provides the clear signal to markets to shift long-term investments toward energy efficiency and other lower-carbon alternatives.
  • Addressing Competitiveness – All major economies support the new agreement, which commits all parties to put forward their best efforts through binding commitments to submit and maintain nationally determined contributions (NDCs), to regularly report on them, and to strengthen them over time. More policy clarity and visibility will ease concerns about global competitiveness and about potentially double-counting carbon reductions.

How the Paris Agreement will bring transparency to climate action

COP 21 in Paris (Image Courtesy UNFCCC Via Flickr).

A central issue in the Paris climate talks was strengthening “transparency” requirements to hold countries accountable for their commitments. This means closer scrutiny of steps taken by developing countries, in particular, and many are understandably nervous.

But in presentations in the sidelines of the negotiations, two developing countries – Singapore and Chile – said their early experiences with the existing transparency system were less onerous than they’d feared. Their key message: You learn by doing.

The existing transparency system, established in 2010 in Cancún, consists of two parallel processes: one for developed countries, and a less stringent one for developing countries. Under both processes, countries submit biennial reports describing the steps they’re taking to meet their emission goals. These reports are then considered by technical experts and by other parties.

The Paris Agreement calls for replacing these processes with a single system requiring all countries to work toward the same standards of transparency and accountability.

Although the agreement promises support to help developing countries build the capacity to meet these standards, many worry the new requirements will be burdensome. Others are wary of being judged harshly, particularly when they have had little experience closely tracking their emissions or undergoing international review.

So far under the current system, 16 developing countries have submitted biennial reports describing the efforts they are taking to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

How we helped on the road to Paris

A host of factors converged to produce a landmark climate agreement in Paris.

The most important was unprecedented political will, reflecting the deepening awareness worldwide of the real and rising risks posed by climate change, and of the economic rewards of a clean-energy transition.

Another was the impressive diplomatic force and finesse of the French, who masterfully managed a process prone to division and disorder, earning precious trust from parties that paid off in the end.

The Toward 2015 Dialogue was instrumental in helping nations build consensus in the runup to the Paris Agreement.

But in the run-up to Paris, one of the reasons I was confident of a good outcome was the growing convergence I’d seen in informal discussions among negotiators and ministers on the broad contours of a deal.

That emerging consensus was clearest to me in nearly 100 hours of intense closed-door discussions we held with senior negotiators from two dozen developed and developing countries.

With generous support from a number of governments, C2ES organized Toward 2015, a series of eight sessions in Germany, Switzerland and the United States that gave negotiators a chance to talk informally and to collectively envision the “landing zones” for Paris. The talks were off-the-record, but the thinking that emerged was captured in a report in July from the dialogue co-chairs, former South African environment minister Valli Moosa and former lead Norwegian negotiator Harald Dovland.

Looking back now at Valli and Harald’s report, I am surprised and gratified to see how closely it forecast the final outcome here in Paris. From broad structure to fine details, it was very much on the mark. 

The report, for instance, said the agreement should: