Greenhouse gas levels hit record high despite lockdowns

James Marshall
November 25, 2020

CO2 emissions hit a record high in 2019 and have continued to climb, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Furthermore, this illustrates why stabilizing the climate requires a focus on long-term, sustained reductions of such gas in order to be successful.

The WMO said it expects annual global carbon emissions to fall this year due to COVID measures, and ventured a preliminary estimate of between 4.2-7.5%.

The last time carbon dioxide levels were that high was three to five million years ago, when temperatures were 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher (33-66ft) than now, the UN's meteorological body said. The amount of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is likely to go up again, though not by as much as in previous years - we saw a 2.6 ppm rise from 2018 to 2019, and the one from 2019 to 2020 could be about 0.08-0.23 ppm less than that. But too much greenhouse effect can make for scorching heat, higher sea levels (through the melting of the ice caps), and it can promote freak weather events.

"The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph", says WMO chief Petteri Taalas.

The UN confirmed the news on Monday, with the World Meteorological Organisation explaining that while Carbon dioxide emissions fell by approximately 17% at the height of the pandemic, the overall annual impact was minor.

However, that will only temporarily tap the brakes on atmospheric Carbon dioxide level rise.

On top of the record-breaking rise in 2019, it looks like the trend is set to continue in 2020. In other recordings this year, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai'i recorded the highest monthly reading of atmospheric Carbon dioxide ever recorded back in May, documenting a seasonal spike in the atmospheric Carbon dioxide of 417.1 ppm.

"On the short-term, the impact of the COVID-19 confinements can not be distinguished from natural variability", the report explains.

Emissions are the main source of GHGs coming into the air. In essence, they're an excess of gas that can't be scrubbed out. We need a sustained flattening of the curve, ' said WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas. "But there weren't 7.7 billion inhabitants".

When you consider that the widespread and significant changes we've seen in human behaviour this year have barely made a dent in Carbon dioxide levels, it's clear the sort of challenge we're up against in reversing global warming.

Mr Taalas pointed out that the world breached the global threshold of 400 ppm in 2015, voicing alarm that "just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm".

Figures for 2019 show carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose faster than on average for the last 10 years, and are now at about 410.5 ppm in 2019, compared with just 278 ppm in pre-industrial times.

Since 1990, the WMO reports that greenhouse gases sticking around in the air have caused a 45 percent increase in total radiative forcing - the term given to the overall warming effect on the climate.

The second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is methane, emitted in part from cattle and fermentation from rice paddies, which is responsible for around 16 percent of warming.

You can read the latest WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin here.

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