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Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
Human activities, mainly burning fossil fuels, are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, amplifying the natural greenhouse effect and making the pH of the ocean more acidic.
Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
Human activities have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, amplifying Earth's natural greenhouse effect.
Despite the global pandemic, the global average amount of carbon dioxide hit a new record high in 2020: 412.5 parts per million.
The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.
The ocean has absorbed enough carbon dioxide to lower its pH by 0.1 units, a 30% increase in acidity.
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Based on preliminary analysis, the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2020 was 412.5 parts per million (ppm for short), setting a new record high amount despite the economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the jump of 2.6 ppm over 2019 levels was the fifth-highest annual increase in NOAA's 63-year record. Since 2000, the global atmospheric carbon dioxide amount has grown by 43.5 ppm, an increase of 12 percent.
The modern record of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels began with observations recorded at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This graph shows the station's monthly average carbon dioxide measurements since 1960 in parts per million (ppm). The seasonal cycle of highs and lows (small peaks and valleys) is driven by summertime growth and winter decay of Northern Hemisphere vegetation. The long-term trend of rising carbon dioxide levels is driven by human activities. NOAA Climate.gov image, based on data from NOAA Global Monitoring Lab.
Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. In fact, the last time the atmospheric CO₂ amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today.
Global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations (CO2) in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years. The peaks and valleys track ice ages (low CO2) and warmer interglacials (higher CO2). During these cycles, CO2 was never higher than 300 ppm. On the geologic time scale, the increase (orange dashed line) looks virtually instantaneous. Graph by NOAA Climate.gov based on data from Lüthi, et al., 2008, via NOAA NCEI Paleoclimatology Program. [Correction: August 20, 2020. An earlier version of this image had an error in the time scaling on the X axis. This affected the apparent duration and timing of the most recent ice ages, but did not affect the modern or paleoclimate carbon dioxide values.]
Carbon dioxide concentrations are rising mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy. Fossil fuels like coal and oil contain carbon that plants pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over many millions of years; we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred years. According to State of the Climate in 2019 from NOAA and the American Meteorological Society,
From 1850 to 2018, 440 ± 20 Pg C (1 Pg C = 10¹⁵ g C) were emitted as CO₂ from fossil fuel burning (Friedlingstein et al. 2019). For 2018 alone, global fossil fuel emissions reached 10 ± 0.5 Pg C yr−1 for the first time in history (Friedlingstein et al. 2019). About half of the CO₂ emitted since 1850 remains in the atmosphere. The rest of it has partially dissolved in the world’s oceans… . While the terrestrial biosphere is currently also a sink for fossil fuel CO₂, the cumulative emissions of CO₂ from land use changes such as deforestation cancel terrestrial uptake over the 1850–2018 period (Friedlingstein et al. 2019).
Each year we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes can remove, which means the net global amount of carbon dioxide rises. The more we overshoot what natural processes remove, the faster the annual growth rate. In the 1960s, the global growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide was roughly 0.6 ± 0.1 ppm per year. Between 2009-18, however, the growth rate has been 2.3 ppm per year. [These statistics, along with the final global average for the prior year, are updated each year in the American Meteorological Society's State of the Climate Report, which comes out in late summer]. The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.
Why carbon dioxide matters
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs and radiates heat. Warmed by sunlight, Earth’s land and ocean surfaces continuously radiate thermal infrared energy (heat). Unlike oxygen or nitrogen (which make up most of our atmosphere), greenhouse gases absorb that heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out. Without this natural greenhouse effect, Earth’s average annual temperature would be below freezing instead of close to 60°F. But increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth's energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth's average temperature.
Carbon Dioxide Driving Climate Change Increases : NPR
The amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, according to NOAA. Fossil fuel use is driving the increase.
Carbon Dioxide, Which Drives Climate Change, Reaches Highest Level In 4 Million Years
June 7, 20215:07 PM ET
ERIC MCDANIEL Twitter
This 2019 photo provided by NOAA shows the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii. Measurements taken at the station in May 2021 revealed the highest monthly average of atmospheric carbon dioxide in human history.
Susan Cobb/NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory
The amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere reached 419 parts per million in May, its highest level in more than four million years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Monday.
After dipping last year because of pandemic-fueled lockdowns, emissions of greenhouse gases have begun to soar again as economies open and people resume work and travel. The newly released data about May carbon dioxide levels show that the global community so far has failed to slow the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, NOAA said in its announcement.
"We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year," said Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory, in a statement. "If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date."
The May measurement is the monthly average of atmospheric data recorded by NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at an observatory atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. NOAA's monthly average from its measurements came to 419.13 parts per million, and scientists from Scripps calculated their average as 418.92. A year ago, the average was 417 parts per million.
The last time the atmosphere held similar amounts of carbon dioxide was during the Pliocene period, NOAA said, about 4.1 to 4.5 million years ago. At that time, sea levels were 78 feet higher. The planet was an average of 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and large forests might have grown in what is today's Arctic tundra.
Homo erectus, an early human ancestor, emerged about two million years ago on a much cooler planet. At the time, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels averaged about 230 parts per million — a bit over half of today's levels.
Since 1958, scientists with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and later, NOAA, have regularly measured the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere at a weather station atop Mauna Loa. Each year, concentrations of carbon dioxide increase enough to set a new record.
"We still have a long way to go to halt the rise, as each year more CO2 piles up in the atmosphere," said Scripps geochemist Ralph Keeling. "We ultimately need cuts that are much larger and sustained longer than the COVID-related shutdowns of 2020."
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Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. The last century of steep increases in carbon dioxide is driven almost entirely by human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels. The effects of climate change are already being felt, as bigger and more intense hurricanes, flooding, heatwaves and wildfire routinely batter communities all over the world.
To avoid even more dire scenarios in the future, countries must sharply cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, scientists say.
The United States formally rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change in February. Around the same time, the United Nations warned that the emission reduction goals of the 196 member countries are deeply insufficient to meet the agreement's target of limiting global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Temperatures have already risen about 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1800s, when the use of fossil fuels became widespread.
NOAA scientist Tans suggested, though, that society has the tools it needs to stop emitting carbon dioxide.
"Solar energy and wind are already cheaper than fossil fuels and they work at the scales that are required," said Tans. "If we take real action soon, we might still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change."
greenhouse gas emissions
national oceanic and atmospheric administration
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CO2-emissions NOT going downGlobal emissions of carbon dioxide have increased constantly since around 1800. Then between 2014 and 2016, global CO2-emissio...
Tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere
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In 2019, about 43.1 billion tons of CO2 from human activities were emitted into the atmosphere. This was an all time high, breaking the previous record from 2018. The emissions could form a giant “CO2 cube” measuring 30 km on each side.
CO2-emissions NOT going down
Global emissions of carbon dioxide have increased constantly since around 1800. Then between 2014 and 2016, global CO2-emissions were mainly unchanged giving hope that emissions were on the way to be reduced. But then emissions began to rise again in 2017 as well as in 2018 and 2019. In 2018, CO2-emissions grew faster than at any time since 2010-11.
We are heading in the wrong direction
So just to be clear: Despite all the good intentions and the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016 with the purpose of reducing CO2-emissions, emissions are still going up. The Paris Agreement aims to keep the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees celsius in this century - or, if possible, to 1.5 degrees. This will require huge changes. With current policies we are heading for a 3.7 degree Celsius increase by 2100.
World average temperature (°C)
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The greenhouse effect
A greenhouse gas is capable of absorbing infrared radiation, thereby trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is known as the greenhouse effect and ultimately leads to global warming. CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
How much do we need to reduce CO2-emissions?
How big reductions in CO2-emissions are needed to limit the rise in global temperatures? According to the UN Environment Programme, emissions must fall by 25 % before 2030 to keep increases within 2 degrees by 2100. 55 % reductions before 2030 are needed to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
CO2-concentrations in the atmosphere going up too fast
CO2-emissions from human activities have caused the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to go up from around 275 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution to over 410 in 2020. A 50 % increase.
According to the UN, greenhouse gas concentrations are rising far too quickly to limit global warming to 1.5 C.
[INSERT CO2 conc]
The average global temperature in 2019 was about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And temperatures keep going up. With current trends, there is little hope to limit increases to 2 degrees. Even 3 degrees will be a challenge:
- Professor Pete Strutton, University of Tasmania.
Total cumulative tons of CO2-emissions
From 1850 to 2019, 2,400 gigatons of CO2 were emitted by human activity. Around 950 gigatons went into the atmosphere. The rest has been absorbed by oceans and land.
It’s not only about CO2
Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer. CO2 is a greenhouse gas but there are many other, and stronger greenhouse gases than CO2. The primary greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere include:Water vapor: The main greenhouse gas, contributing 36-72 % of the greenhouse effect.Carbon dioxide: The main contribution to the greenhouse effect by human activities.Methane: A very powerful greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The levels of methane have increased 170 % since the industrial revolutionOzone: Contributing around 5 % of global warming and has seen a 42 % increase since 1750.Nitrous oxide: An extremely powerful greenhouse gas with a warming potential 265 times higher than carbon.
Greenhouse gas emissions could increase from 55 gigatons of CO2 equivalents (GtCO2e) in 2019 to over 80 GtCO2e in 2050 - an almost 50 percent increase.
Causes of CO2-emissions
CO2-emissions are mostly a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. In 2018, emission of CO2 from fossil fuels were:
Coal: 14.7 billion tons
Oil: 12.4 billion tons
Gas: 7.5 billion tonsThe main CO2-emitting sectors:
Electricity and heat production: 49.0%
Manufacturing & construction industries: 20.0%
Other sectors: 10,5%Top CO2-emitting countries:
The top five CO2-emitting countries are (in megatons):
China: 10065 USA: 5416 India: 2654 Russia: 1711 Japan: 1162
Deforestation and climate change
Deforestation is a main contributor to climate change and the second largest human source of CO2-emissions after fossil fuel combustion. Emissions from deforestation are somewhat “indirect” because deforestation results in less CO2 absorbed by trees. Deforestation accounts for 10-15 % of CO2-emissions globally. The number used to be closer to 20 % but has gone down mainly because carbon emissions from fossil fuels have gone up - not because the level of deforestation has decreased.
A few more facts on the link between deforestation and climate change:
Forests store over a trillion tons of the world’s carbon. That's almost 42 % of all CO2-emissions caused by human activity in the pre-industrial era.
Deforestation is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and ships combined.