Wildfires in Greece in 2021.

2021 in Review The World Promises Change After Another Year of Extreme Climate Disasters

We look back at our defining events of the year and the photos that captured them.

This will go down as among the hottest of the past 170 years, and the horrors of global warming were on full display.

There were deep, possibly permanent drought conditions in some countries, devastating floods in others, and ever-more destructive wildfires. Greek villages burned, riverbanks burst in Germany and Brazil’s farms frosted over. If one heat wave stood out from the pattern, it was in the usually temperate region of North America’s Pacific Northwest.

It was also a year of climate breakthroughs, both technological and political. Wind power and batteries kept getting cheaper and better. The proportion of new electric passenger vehicles sold worldwide has now reached 10% of the total, according to BloombergNEF. In Iceland, meanwhile, the largest complex ever built to remove carbon dioxide from the air sprang to life.


Read more from Bloomberg’s year in politics, economic recovery, crypto, Covid-19 and supply shortages.


If it was a year of unprecedented climate disaster, it was also a year of unprecedented climate pledges. The big question is whether those promises yield results.

Governments and companies rushed to show they’re doing their part. The 10 biggest economies and institutions overseeing 40% of global financial assets have now committed to phase out carbon emissions. India, the third-biggest emitter, set a 2070 target to reach net-zero. Even Saudi Arabia and Russia announced carbon-neutrality goals.

The world’s top climate diplomats, who came together in Glasgow from 197 nations in November for two weeks at COP26, agreed for the first time on the need to curb fossil fuel subsidies and coal use. Some of the most polluting companies swore they’re ready to go green.

If nations were to deliver on their goals—an enormous, anxiety-producing “if”—analysts project that the planet would warm by about 1.8 degrees Celsius. That’s a marked improvement, even if it nonetheless exceeds the 1.5 degrees Celsius target enshrined in the Paris Agreement as the best hope to spare humanity the worst effects of climate change.

Above: Evia, Greece, Aug. 8. Record-high temperatures combined with strong wind caused a series of blazes. They burned for more than two weeks, razing a large part of the island close to Athens. Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg
“Photographing Wildfires” Bloomberg Quicktake

It won’t be easy. Solar energy is being deployed as never before, but rising prices of a crucial raw material, polysilicon, has thrown a decade of cost declines into reverse. The same could happen to batteries as key metals become more expensive. The Icelandic carbon-removal facility, called Orca, is tiny—sucking up only 4,000 tons per year— and the industry will have to grow much bigger and cheaper to make a real difference.

And what about all those non-binding promises from corporate executives and politicians? Skepticism that they’ll fail to make the hard decisions needed to abandon fossil fuels is more than warranted. Still, this year brought historic action from courts, central banks and other regulators to develop frameworks to hold them to account.

In August, a 4,000-page report by the global consortium of elite scientists backed by the United Nations erased any doubt that humans are responsible for Earth’s current predicament.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land,” they wrote. Readings on atmospheric carbon dioxide (now at a 2 million-year peak) and recent global temperatures (hotter than any period in the past 125,000 years) show just how much damage has already been done.

If this year showed us anything, it isn’t that we’re headed for a deadlier future. We’re already there. It’s that there still might remain time to turn things around.

California, July 15. In August, the hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville, the state’s second-biggest reservoir, was taken off line for the first time since it was built in 1967 because the water level was too low.
California, July 15. In August, the hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville, the state’s second-biggest reservoir, was taken off line for the first time since it was built in 1967 because the water level was too low. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
 New Delhi, Nov. 9.  After a brief respite during the pandemic, smog returned to envelop India’s capital and numerous other cities.
New Delhi, Nov. 9. After a brief respite during the pandemic, smog returned to envelop India’s capital and numerous other cities. Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
Glasgow, U.K., Nov. 6. Tens of thousands of protestors marched through Scotland’s biggest city urging politicians and business leaders attending the COP26 climate talks to do more to stem global warming.
Glasgow, U.K., Nov. 6. Tens of thousands of protestors marched through Scotland’s biggest city urging politicians and business leaders attending the COP26 climate talks to do more to stem global warming. Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg
Mezhdurechensk, Russia, Feb. 5. Blast debris from a detonation rises from the open pit during excavation operations at the Raspadsky coal mine. Russia is the largest coal exporter globally after Australia and Indonesia. Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Portland, Oregon, June 28. Heat waves like the one that hit the northwest corner of the U.S. used to be rare, but extreme weather—from fires in California to droughts in the Midwest—is becoming more frequent.
Portland, Oregon, June 28. Heat waves like the one that hit the northwest corner of the U.S. used to be rare, but extreme weather—from fires in California to droughts in the Midwest—is becoming more frequent. Maranie Staab/Bloomberg
Hellisheidi, Iceland, Sept. 7. Orca, the largest direct-air capture facility in the world, is nestled in the landscape near a geothermal power plant and will suck 4,000 tons of CO2 out of the air a year.
Hellisheidi, Iceland, Sept. 7. Orca, the largest direct-air capture facility in the world, is nestled in the landscape near a geothermal power plant and will suck 4,000 tons of CO2 out of the air a year. Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg
Galliano, Louisiana, Aug. 31. Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc, and the reason such winds are getting more powerful is no secret: warmer ocean water.
Galliano, Louisiana, Aug. 31. Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc, and the reason such winds are getting more powerful is no secret: warmer ocean water. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg
New York, Aug. 7.This $6.8 million mist garden was the result of the city looking for a water feature designed for cooling off rather than decoration.
New York, Aug. 7 This $6.8 million mist garden was the result of the city looking for a water feature designed for cooling off rather than decoration. Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg
Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, July 17. A warming climate has supercharged storms, contributing to the catastrophic flash floods that killed at least 170 people in the country.
Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, July 17. A warming climate has supercharged storms, contributing to the catastrophic flash floods that killed at least 170 people in the country. Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg
Mushumbi Pools, Mbire, Zimbabwe, on May 14. This area of Zimbabwe has had to contend with impacts from warming global temperatures, from droughts to floods and cyclones, even though the nation emits far less carbon than many other countries. Photographer: Cynthia R Matonhodze/Bloomberg
Mushumbi Pools, Mbire, Zimbabwe, May 14. This area had to contend with the impact of global warming, from droughts to floods and cyclones, even though Zimbabwe emits far less carbon than many other countries. Cynthia R. Matonhodze/Bloomberg
Los Angeles, May 15. A fast-growing brush fire erupted near the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in mid-May, prompting evacuations.
Los Angeles, May 15. A fast-growing brush fire erupted near the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in mid-May, prompting evacuations. Eric Thayer/Bloomberg

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