Levels of climate-warming greenhouse gases in atmosphere reach record highs

Gases rising from a power plant

Levels of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached record highs again last year, UN scientists have warned ahead of key climate talks.

Carbon rising

Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere rose at a faster rate in 2020 than over the previous decade, and the trend has continued in 2021, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said. The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic did not have any discernible impact on atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and the rate they are building up, although there was a temporary decline in new emissions, the WMO said.

If greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase at current rates, the world will see temperature rises far above globally agreed long-term targets to limit warming to 1.5C to 2C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Greenhouse gases are emitted by human activities such as burning fossil fuels for power, heating and transport, farming and deforestation, and they build up in the atmosphere where higher concentrations of the gases trap more heat, causing rising temperatures, extreme weather, and rising seas.

WMO secretary general Professor Petteri Taalas said the latest information on greenhouse gases contained a stark, scientific message for climate negotiators at the COP26 talks, adding:

We are way off track.

Read on...

This comes at the same time that politicians seem to have diminished their ambitions on reversing climate change. As Jasmine Norden wrote for The Canary:

On the official Cop26 website, the first goal of the conference is:

‘Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach’

The phrase ‘within reach’ is a lot more vague and non-committal than the Paris Agreement’s original pledge to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

“There is no time to lose”

The last time the Earth had similar concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was three to five million years ago when the temperature was 2C-3C warmer than now, and sea levels were 10-20 metres higher – but there weren’t 7.8 billion people living on the planet then, Taalas warned. He added:

Many countries are now setting carbon neutral targets and it is hoped that Cop26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments. We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact on the gases that drive climate change. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life.

The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible. There is no time to lose.

The latest annual greenhouse gas bulletin from the WMO shows that levels of carbon dioxide – the most important greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere reached 413 parts per million in 2020, 49% above what it was in 1750 before human activity started affecting natural systems.

Concentrations of other key greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide also hit record highs in 2020, as they increased at faster rates than in the past 10 years.

Roughly half the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities remains in the atmosphere, while the other half is absorbed by oceans and land habitats such as forests. But the bulletin warns that these carbon-absorbing “sinks” may become less effective in the future, reducing their ability to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and buffer the planet from even greater warming.

“Small window of opportunity”

The bulletin has been published as world leaders and negotiators prepare to gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference in less than a week, where countries will be under pressure to take greater action to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that are driving rising temperatures.

Responding to the report, professor Dave Reay – the director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, University of Edinburgh – said the true success or failure of COP26 would be written in the skies in the form of greenhouse gas concentrations. He noted:

This new report from the WMO provides a brutally frank assessment of what’s been written there to date. So far, it’s an epic fail

The “small window of opportunity” to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that meets global goals to curb rising temperatures was about to vanish, he warned. Dr Heather Graven, reader in climate physics at Imperial College London, said:

These atmospheric measurements provide hard evidence that, rather than slowing climate change, we are accelerating it. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing faster than ever. It is crucial that Cop26 succeeds in ramping up mitigation efforts across the globe

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  • Show Comments
    1. We have been criminally laggardly. Every building should have solar panels. We could have done that over the past few decades. Every town should have a carbn neutral transport system and charging to keep polluting vehicles out. Diesel engines should have been phased out. Cycle routes, schemes to help people buy bikes, walk to work schemes, and a ban on bringing children to school by car, except in extreme cases, all these should have been implemented long ago. What has prevented it is the fear of loss of profit. The fact is that capitalism, which has been on the ropes for decades and has survived only by shredding the promise of democracy which it claims as its justification, can’t adjust to a world in which we have to view the planet, its creatures and one another as demanding respect, care and long-term consideration. The hope of the right is that the drive for change will be dropped, that they can carry on treating the planet as a money-making toy and, that if disaster happens, they can keep themselves safe and sacrifice the rest of us. We are putting a bucket under the leaking roof when we need to rip it off and build a new one. The rich are playing Russian roulette with the planet and our lives.

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