Although many countries are making progress in slowing their emissions of carbon dioxide, a global warming pollutant, the amount of the gas in the air surged at a record pace in 2016, a new report found.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the air increased at an extreme rate last year to reach the highest amount in at least 800,000 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. Globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, which was up from 400.00 ppm the year before. The culprit? Human activities, such as the clearing of rainforests and burning of fossil fuels, as well as a strong El Niño event.
During strong El Niño years, when ocean temperatures are milder than average in the tropical Pacific Ocean, altering weather conditions around the world, carbon dioxide tends to increase at a faster rate. The El Niño helped cause droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of carbon “sinks,” such as forests and the oceans, that soak up carbon dioxide.
According to the report, the rate of increase of carbon dioxide in the air during just the past 70 years is about 100 times higher than at the end of the last ice age.
“As far as direct and proxy observations can tell, such abrupt changes in the atmospheric levels of CO2 have never before been seen,” the report found. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air is now a staggering 145 percent of pre-1750 levels, the report found.
The observations were gathered at dozens of locations around the world, from the Arctic to a mountaintop in Hawaii and a station in Antarctica.
“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, in a statement. “Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet,” he said.
“The laws of physics mean that we face a much hotter, more extreme climate in the future. There is currently no magic wand to remove this CO2 from the atmosphere,” Taalas added.
Scientists have found that throughout history, carbon dioxide levels and the height of the Earth’s oceans, existence of its ice sheets, and other key indicators of the planet’s climate have marched in near lockstep. The last time Earth had a concentration of carbon dioxide comparable to today’s, the report found, was 3 to 5 million years ago.
At that time, known to geologists as the mid-Pliocene Epoch, the planet’s average temperature was 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than it is now, and sea levels were up to 20 meters, or 65 feet higher than they are currently. The entire Greenland Ice Sheet melted during that time, as did the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
If similar changes were to occur today, coastal megacities around the world would become uninhabitable. Much of the state of Florida would be lost to the sea, and extreme heat waves would become the norm rather than the exception each summer.
“The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed. The last few years have seen enormous uptake of renewable energy, but we must now redouble our efforts to ensure these new low-carbon technologies are able to thrive. We have many of the solutions already to address this challenge. What we need now is global political will and a new sense of urgency,” said Erik Solheim, head of the U.N. Environment Program, in a statement.
United Nations climate negotiators will meet beginning November 7 in Bonn to iron out some of the rules under the Paris Agreement, and may commit to further emissions reductions despite the June announcement by President Donald Trump that the U.S. would exit the treaty. The U.S. is still sending a delegation to the negotiation.
Every nation in the world with the exception of just two countries: Syria and the U.S. are intent on implementing the treaty.