Record carbon dioxide levels usher in ‘new era of climate change’

Earth, eastern hemisphere --NASA

The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere hit a record high this year, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The carbon dioxide (CO2) levels reached historic levels by surpassing 400 parts per million in 2015. This year it’s even higher and not going down anytime soon.

The culprits: more pollution and El Niño.

“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, in a statement. “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not.”

News last year that the planet crossed the 400 parts per million threshold was characterized as “a significant milestone” by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The last time there was that much CO2 in the atmosphere dates back about 2 million years. Global CO2 is up by 120 parts per million since pre-industrial times, with roughly half of the increase occurring since 1980.

The greenhouse gas monitoring station, established on Hawaii in 1958, projects that the planet will stay above the 400 parts per million level for “many generations” to come. The cause is humans burning fossil fuels. That pollution increases CO2 levels, which is the main contributor to global warming.

“The real elephant in the room is carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years and in the oceans for even longer. Without tackling COemissions, we can not tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2°C above the pre-industrial era,” Taalas said in a statement.

El Niño’s arrival did not help. The event warms the eastern Pacific Ocean, causing climate shifts around the world from higher rainfall to drought. The droughts that strike the tropics can lead to diminished vegetation that eats up CO2 and more CO2-producing wildfires. The weather event is over, but the spike this year shows the fragility of the planet.

The Paris Climate Agreement, established last December, set out targets and guidelines to limit global warming. The world is on track to limit warming to 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to the independent “Climate Action Tracker.” That is nearly a full degree below the status quo.

There is more good news. A global effort to further reduce emissions and uphold the Paris Agreement should lead to the climate improving by 2060, said Taalas. The findings should add urgency to act as quickly as possible and limit the global impacts of climate change. Leaders from nearly 200 countries will meet in Morocco in November to advance the deal.

Taalas says there is no time to wait.

“It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation,” he said in a statement.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.