Climate change crisis: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit a record high with no signs of slowing down, warns UN report

The current level of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is 147% of pre-industrial levels in 1750, a time where fossil fuel and coal was unheard of.


                            Climate change crisis: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit a record high with no signs of slowing down, warns UN report

The levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide have reached a new high, comparable to the levels that circulated about 3-5 million years ago, according to a report from the UN's World Meteorological Organization.

The average concentrations of carbon dioxide around the world reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million (ppm) last year, finds the report. The levels of carbon dioxide crossed the symbolic and significant mark of 400 parts per million benchmark in 2015. The current level of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is 147% of pre-industrial levels in 1750, a time where fossil fuel and coal was unheard of.

“The [carbon dioxide concentration] number is the closest thing to a real-world Doomsday Clock, and it’s pushing us ever closer to midnight. Our ability to preserve civilization as we know it, avert the mass extinction of species, and leave a healthy planet to our children depend on us urgently stopping the clock,”  John Sauven, head of Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian.

The increase in CO2 from 2017 to 2018 was above the average growth rate over the last decade. (WMO)

In a press statement, the WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas says that despite all the commitments under the Paris agreement on climate change, there is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline. “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5m years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now," adds Taalas.

WHO measured carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, instead of measuring emission rates. While emissions refer to the amount of gases that go up into the atmosphere from fossil fuels -- such as burning coal for electricity and from deforestation, concentrations are what is left in the air after a portion of all carbon emissions are soaked up in the seas, and an even similar amounts are absorbed by land and trees, says the report.

Other greenhouse gases are on the rise too. The report found a spike in levels of methane and nitrous oxide in the last decade.

Methane is the second most important long-lived greenhouse gas is. About 40% of the gas is released from both natural sources like wetlands and 60% from cattle breeding, rice agriculture, fossil fuel exploitation, landfills and biomass burning. Atmospheric methane reached a new high of about 1869 parts per billion in 2018 and is now 259% of the pre-industrial level. 

The report found a spike in levels of methane and nitrous oxide in the last decade. (Getty Images)

The atmospheric concentration of nitrous oxide -- a gas that is known to destroy the protective ozone layer -- was 331.1 parts per billion in 2018. This is 123% of pre-industrial levels. Nitrous oxide (N2O)  can be traced back to oceans, soil, biomass burning, fertilizer use, and various industrial processes, with natural sources constituting 60% and human sources approximately 40% of the levels in the atmosphere.

Commenting on the report, Nick Mabey, chief executive of think tank E3G, told The Guardian, "Until we stop new investment in fossil fuels and massively scale up green power, the risks from catastrophic climate change will continue to rise.”

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