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High greenhouse gas levels mark start of new era of climate reality says WMO

Globally averaged concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere reached the symbolic and significant milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 2015 and surged again to new records in 2016 on the back of the very powerful El Niño event, according to the World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), carbon dioxide (CO2) levels had previously reached the 400 ppm barrier for certain months of the year and in certain locations but never before on a global average basis for the entire year. The longest-established greenhouse gas (GHG) monitoring station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, predicts that CO2 concentrations will stay above 400 ppm for the whole of 2016 and not dip below that level for many generations.

The growth spurt in CO2 was fuelled by the El Niño event, which started in 2015 and had a strong impact well into 2016. This triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of “sinks” like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2. These sinks currently absorb about half of CO2 emissions but there is a risk that they may become saturated, which would increase the fraction of emitted CO2 which stays in the atmosphere, according to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

Between 1990 and 2015 there was a 37 percent increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on the climate – because of long-lived GHGs such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.

– The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations. The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not, said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

– The recent agreement in Kigali to amend the so-called Montreal Protocol and phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), which act as strong GHGs, is good news. WMO salutes the commitment of the international community to meaningful climate action, said Taalas.

– But the real elephant in the room is CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years and in the oceans for even longer. Without tackling CO2 emissions, we can not tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2°C above the pre-industrial era. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation, he said.

Globally averaged CO2 mole fraction from 1984 to 2015 (illustration courtesy WMO).

Globally averaged CO2 mole fraction from 1984 to 2015 (illustration courtesy WMO).

Global GHG info system

WMO and partners are working towards an Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System to provide information that can help nations to track the progress toward implementation of their national emission pledges, improve national emission reporting and inform additional mitigation actions. This system builds on the long-term experience of WMO in GHG observations and atmospheric modelling.

WMO is also striving to improve weather and climate services for the renewable energy sector and to support the Green Economy and sustainable development. To optimize the use of solar, wind and hydropower production, new types of weather services are needed.


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