The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed last year, reaching the highest level in about 800,000 years, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Monday.
Globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400 parts per million in 2015 and 397.7 parts per million in 2014. The record-breaking surge was driven by a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event.
The UN’s weather agency warned that rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have the potential to initiate “unpredictable changes” in the world’s climate system, which can lead to severe ecological and economic disruptions.
“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. “Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet.”
Taalas added: “CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. 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.”
Despite the record surge in carbon dioxide concentration, a recent assessment shows that the year-to-year increase of CO2 emissions from human activities has slowed down or even reached a plateau. But taken together with natural emissions from a strong El Niño, they contributed to the sharp increase.
“The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed,” said Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment. “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.”
Population growth, intensified agricultural practices, increases in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil fuel sources, have all contributed to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The levels are now 145% of those prior to the beginning of the industrial era in 1750.
Scientists have previously developed techniques to coax tiny air bubbles in Antarctic ice cores, which reveals an intricate record of the concentration of greenhouse gases. This shows that the concentration of carbon dioxide has reached a level not seen in about 800,000 years.
In the mid-Pliocene, which was 3 to 5 million years ago, the concentration of CO2 also reached 400 parts per million. This was marked by global surface temperatures which were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today, causing ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica to melt and resulting in a sea level that is 10 to 20 meters (32.8 to 65.6 feet) higher than it is today.
The concentration of carbon dioxide is believed to have reached 400 to 650 parts per million during the mid-Miocene, which was about 15 to 17 million years ago. This period was marked by global surface temperatures which were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today and causing the sea level to rise 40 meters (131.2 feet) higher than it is today.
The Paris climate deal, which is supported by all countries except the U.S. and Syria, aims to keep global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which experts say would already have a significant impact. But experts say the measures in the agreement are insufficient and countries which fail to fulfill their commitments are not penalized.
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