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Greenhouse gas concentrations in atmosphere reach yet another high

Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea-level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems.

Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached another new record high, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea-level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems (image courtesy WMO).

The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin showed that globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018, up from 405.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2017. The increase in CO2 from 2017 to 2018 was very close to that observed from 2016 to 2017 and just above the average over the last decade.

Global levels of CO2 crossed the symbolic and significant 400 parts per million (ppm) benchmark in 2015. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the oceans for even longer.

Concentrations of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (NOx) also surged by higher amounts than during the past decade, according to observations from the Global Atmosphere Watch network which includes stations in the remote Arctic, mountain areas and tropical islands.

Since 1990, there has been a 43 percent increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on the climate – by long-lived greenhouse gases. CO2 accounts for about 80 percent of this, according to figures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) quoted in the WMO Bulletin.

There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of mankind. It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer, sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Emissions gap

The WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports on atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Emissions represent what goes into the atmosphere. Concentrations represent what remains in the atmosphere after the complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere and the oceans. About a quarter of the total emissions is absorbed by the oceans and another quarter by the biosphere.

Global emissions are not estimated to peak by 2030, let alone by 2020 if current climate policies and ambition levels of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are maintained. Preliminary findings from the pending UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2019 indicate that GHG emissions continued to rise in 2018, according to an advanced chapter of the Emissions Gap Report released as part of a United in Science synthesis for the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in September.

Steam release at the quench tower of a coal coking plant. The coke and coke gas are used in a smelting plant. The greenhouse gas (GHG) of most relevance to the global steel industry is carbon dioxide (CO2). According to the World Steel Association, on average for 2017, 1.83 tonnes of CO2 were emitted for every tonne of steel produced. The steel industry generates between 7% and 9% of direct emissions from the global use of fossil fuel.

The United in Science report, which brought together major partner organizations in the domain of global climate change research, underlined the glaring – and growing – gap between agreed targets to tackle global warming and the actual reality.

The findings of WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin and UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report point us in a clear direction – in this critical period, the world must deliver concrete, stepped-up action on emissions. We face a stark choice: set in motion the radical transformations we need now, or face the consequences of a planet radically altered by climate change, said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

A separate and complementary Emissions Gap Report by the UNEP is to be released on November 26, 2019, and it assesses the latest scientific studies on current and estimated future greenhouse gas emissions; they compare these with the emission levels permissible for the world to progress on a least-cost pathway to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. This difference between “where we are likely to be and where we need to be” is known as the emissions gap.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the Summit had delivered “a boost in momentum, cooperation, and ambition. But we have a long way to go.”

This will now be taken forward by the UN Climate Change Conference, which will be held December 2-15, 2019, in Madrid, Spain, under the presidency of Chile.

Differentiating carbon with isotopes

The bulletin includes a focus on how isotopes confirm the dominant role of fossil fuel combustion in the increase of atmospheric CO2. There are multiple indications that the increase in the atmospheric levels of CO2 are related to fossil fuel combustion.

Fossil fuels were formed from plant material millions of years ago and do not contain radiocarbon. Thus, burning it will add to the atmosphere radiocarbon-free CO2, increasing CO2 levels and decreasing its radiocarbon content. And this is exactly what is demonstrated by the measurements.

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