An alarming record increase last year in the atmospheric presence of carbon dioxide, and a halting international response to that reality, point toward a civilization-threatening 3.0ºC increase in global temperatures this century, according to two reports from United Nations agencies.
The findings add new urgency to the annual United Nations climate change conference (COP 23) opening next week in Bonn, Germany, meant to build momentum toward achieving the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of capping global warming below 2.0ºC above pre-industrial levels.
The UN-affiliated World Meteorological Organization reported that “atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) hit 403.3 parts per million (ppm)” in 2016, Reuters writes, “a level not seen for millions of years, [and one] potentially fuelling a 20-metre rise in sea levels and adding 3.0 degrees to temperatures.”
The WMO’s estimate is slightly below one produced in March by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based on measurements at its Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. There, NOAA saw CO2 levels reach 405.1 ppm in 2016, “a record fifth consecutive year in which the observatory recorded a 2 ppm or greater increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
The WMO noted that carbon dioxide concentrations rose 50% faster last year than their average over the last decade. The two other main greenhouse gases—methane and nitrous oxide—also reached record concentrations in 2016, and “emissions from sources such as coal, oil, cement, and deforestation reached a record.”
Meanwhile, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) released an assessment in advance of COP 23, showing that even full implementation of national commitments made under the Paris deal (an objective threatened by the Trump White House’s decision to withdraw the United States from the accord), “will deliver only one-third of what is needed for the world to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Climate News Network reports.
The same UNEP assessment found that “action by the private sector, and by cities and other groups below national level, is not increasing fast enough to help close the gap.”
Without much more aggressive action to reduce emissions, Climate News Net concludes, “governments should accept that we shall probably be living in a world 3.0oC warmer than it is today by the end of this century.”
That prospect invites stunning comparisons to the past. “The last time carbon dioxide levels reached 400 ppm,” Reuters writes, “was three to five million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene era.”
Then, the WMO bulletin observes, “ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica melted and even parts of East Antarctica’s ice retreated, causing the sea level to rise 10 to 20 metres higher than today.”
One difference now: those concentrations are rising at least 100 times faster than they did when the last ice age relaxed its grip on the world.
The dismaying data also sharply undercut the relative optimism of two other recent reports about global carbon emissions.
Record increases in the three main greenhouse gases call into question the import of The Guardian’s recent sanguine assertion, relying on data from the EU Joint Research Centre, that “economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions have been decoupled over the past four years.” The EU Centre asserted, wrongly it now appears, that global carbon emissions had held steady as the global economy continued to grow.
The WMO data are also in some conflict with a parallel finding by the private accounting consultancy PwC. It reported that “the carbon intensity of the world’s economy fell 2.6%” last year, Business Green writes, “a continuation of the ‘step change’ in the pace of decarbonization seen since 2014.”
But PwC conceded that the reduction in carbon intensity “still falls well short of the 6.3% rate needed to deliver emissions cuts compatible with keeping temperature increases to under 2.0C.” Indeed, the WMO report suggests emissions may not in fact be falling at all.
An even more disturbing possibility is that the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, rather than reflecting current human emissions, are the result of feedback loops triggered by the warming that has already resulted from earlier ones.
“One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim.
“This is unacceptable,” he added. “If we invest in the right technologies, ensuring that the private sector is involved, we can still meet the promise we made to our children to protect their future. But we have to get on the case now.”
“As countries prepare to discuss the process for raising the ambition of their national targets at the next round of climate talks in Bonn next week,” PwC Director of Climate Change Jonathan Grant agreed in Business Green, “our report emphasizes the fact that [the success of] the Paris Agreement will only be possible if they are serious about accelerating action.”
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