This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.
As negotiators from 195 countries concluded two weeks of COP 26 negotiations with lacklustre results, atmospheric readings from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed carbon dioxide levels rising over the last year to 414.49 parts per million—2.56 ppm more than a year ago, and a 24.69 ppm rise in a decade.
The pre-industrial baseline in which human society developed was 280 ppm. That level had remained stable for thousands of years before Europe began to burn coal in large quantities. Adding the continuous use of oil and gas in larger quantities from 1900 and accelerating into this century has vastly speeded up the process.
Scientists have placed the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 350 ppm, a figure which they calculate will keep the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5C. In order to keep to a safe path, existing emissions need to be reduced by 45% this decade. On present trends—and now with COP 26 added as a marker—this seems wildly optimistic if not impossible.
Methane is another severe headache to control. It is 80 to 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over 20 years—the time span when humanity will be scrambling to get climate change under control. Although large quantities of methane come from natural sources, human activity creates 60% of the total. Much of this comes from intensive agriculture, including cattle breeding, and the fossil fuel industry is responsible for almost 30%, according to the International Energy Agency.
In August, before and immediately after the release of the latest climate science assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists pointed to methane controls as the single best action governments can take to reduce emissions. In the first week of COP 26, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030, while scientists called for reductions of 45 to 50%.
Meanwhile the atmosphere continues to heat up. Temperatures are already 1.1°C above the level when carbon dioxide was at 280 ppm, and on a trajectory to reach 2.4°C if all countries’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are kept. In the immediate aftermath of the COP, politicians pointed out that that’s progress from the 4.0°C estimate in circulation just six years ago, when the Paris conference convened—but still far short of the 1.5°C threshold, when every 0.1° is a choice between life and death.