The primary driver of global warming, disruptive climate changes and ocean acidification is the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
By Barry Saxifrage
Despite decades of global efforts towards climate policies, clean energy and efficiency, CO2 levels continue to rise and are actually accelerating upwards.
For those of us hoping for signs of climate progress, this most critical and basic climate data is bitter news indeed.
It shows humanity racing ever more rapidly into a full-blown crisis for both our climate and our oceans.
That’s the story told by the newest CO2 data released by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Let’s take a look….
Even the increases are increasing
Even the increases are increasing
Annual CO2 increase in atmosphere
My first chart, above, shows NOAA’s CO2 data thru 2016.
Each vertical bar shows how much the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increased that year. You can see at a glance how the annual changes keep getting larger.
Indeed, the last two years (dark orange) saw CO2 rise by three parts-per-million (3 ppm) for the first time ever recorded.
And the relentless upwards march of CO2 is even more clear in the ten-year averages.
Annual atmospheric CO2 increases. Ten-year averages.
My second chart shows these ten-year average increases as yellow columns. Up, up, up.
NOAA’s press release highlighted the “unprecedented” CO2 rise in last two years.
The scientists also pointed out that 2016 “was a record fifth consecutive year that carbon dioxide (CO2) rose by 2 ppm or greater.” Those last five years also broke a new record by exceeding +2.5 ppm per year for the first time.
I’ve included both the new five-year record and the new two-year record as black bars on the chart. All told, we’ve managed to pull off the triple crown of climate failure. The last ten years, five years and two years have all smashed records for CO2 increases.
If humanity is making climate progress, someone forgot to tell the atmosphere about it.
I thought we were making progress on CO2, what’s going on?
Recently the climate press has been buzzing about a hopeful CO2 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA estimates that fossil fuel CO2 didn’t increase in either 2015 or 2016. Even better, they point out, this is the first time that has happened while the global economy expanded. I was curious how to reconcile this plateau in fossil fuel CO2 with the continued acceleration of atmospheric CO2. Here’s what I found:
Fossil fuel CO2 might be increasing.
The IEA numbers might be wrong.
They rely on nations to accurately report their fossil fuel use.
Not all of them do, especially when it comes to burning their own coal supplies.
In fact, the lack of a system to accurately verify national CO2 claims was a key issue in the Paris Climate Accord discussions.
The worry is that as nations face increasing pressure and scrutiny around their CO2, the incentives to cook the books will increase.
Incorrect accounting of just one percent globally could switch the storyline from “hopeful plateau” to “continuing acceleration”.
The IEA devotes two chapters of their “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion” report to the various issues impacting data accuracy.
Humans might be increasing CO2 emissions from other sectors.
Roughly a quarter of the CO2 released by humans comes from non-energy sources not covered in the EIA numbers. These include land use changes, agriculture, deforestation, fugitive emissions, industrial processes, solvents and waste.
We could be increasing CO2 from these.
Climate change might be increasing CO2 emissions.
Increases in wildfires, droughts, melting permafrost — as well as changes to plankton and oceans — can all cause sustained increases in CO2 emissions. And climate change is affecting all of these. Perhaps some of these changes are underway.
The oceans and biosphere might be absorbing less of our CO2. Much of the CO2 humans release gets taken up by the oceans (ocean acidification) and the biosphere (increased plant growth). Some climate models predict these “CO2 sinks” will lose their ability to keep up. If that is starting to happen, then dumping the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere will result in increasing amounts staying there.
Unfortunately we don’t have good enough measurements to say what the mix of these factors is. However, what we can accurately measure is the CO2 level in our atmosphere. That’s the CO2 number we have to stop from rising because it is what drives global warming, climate changes and ocean acidification. Sadly, it’s also the CO2 number that shows no sign of slowing down yet.
Out burping the ice age
NOAA’s press release also provided some perspective on how historically extreme our atmosphere’s CO2 increases have been:
“… the rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last Ice Age. This is a real shock to the atmosphere.”
For context, during the last ice age all of Canada was buried beneath a massive northern ice cap. The ice was two miles thick over the Montreal region, and a mile thick over Vancouver. So much water was locked up in ice that global sea levels were 125 meters (410 feet) lower. We are talking a lot of ice and a radically different climate.
Recent research reveals that:
“… a giant ‘burp’ of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the North Pacific Ocean helped trigger the end of last ice age, around 17,000 years ago.”
Just how big of a CO2 ‘burp’ did it take to help heat the frigid global climate, eliminate the continent-spanning ice sheets and raise sea levels by hundreds of feet? Around 80 to 100 ppm — the same amount we’ve belched into our atmosphere just since 1960. We did it 100 times faster than that so-called “burp” and we are still accelerating the rate we pump it out.
I’ve added the ice-age-ending ‘burp’ rate as a red line on the chart above. Look for it way down at the bottom. Such incredible climate altering power from even small CO2 increases shows why we must reverse the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Adding it up: the rising level of CO2 in our atmosphere
So far we’ve only been looking at annual increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s an important metric to evaluate whether we’re making any progress against climate pollution. But what actually drives the greenhouse effect is the total amount that has accumulated in our atmosphere over time. So let’s take a look at that.
Here’s my next chart showing atmospheric carbon dioxide as a solid blue line. Just for interest, I’ve also included a series of dotted lines showing how quickly CO2 was increasing in each of the last few decades. I’ve extended each of those out to 2030 so you can see at a glance how the CO2 curve keeps bending relentlessly upwards, decade after decade.
Accelerating towards the 450 ppm ‘guardrail’
Every major nation in the world has agreed that climate change must be limited to a maximum of +2oC in global warming. Beyond that point we risk destabilizing droughts, floods, mega-storms, heat waves, food shortages, climate extremes and irreversible tipping points. The best climate science says that staying below +2oC means we can’t exceed 450 ppm of CO2.
At the top of the chart I’ve highlighted this critical climate ‘guardrail’ of 450 ppm as a red line.
Notice how much faster we are approaching that danger line as the decades go by. Back in 1970, it seemed we had more than a century and a half to get a grip on climate pollution because CO2 was increasing much more slowly. But at our current rate we will blow through that guardrail in just 18 years. And, as we’ve seen, our “current rate” keeps accelerating.
Our foot-dragging at reducing climate pollution has left us in a dangerous situation with little time left to act. We’ve spent decades accelerating CO2 emissions to unprecedented extremes. We’ve blown our chance to deal gracefully with the climate and ocean crisis.
Global efforts so far
Beginning in 1995, the world’s nations have gathered every year to address the climate crisis. I’ve included all 22 of these annual meetings of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) on the chart above. Despite these decades of negotiations, plans, protocols and accords, CO2 is now increasing 60 per cent faster than when they first met.
Instead of slowing the rise of CO2, we’ve accelerated it.
What would Plan B for 2C look like?
Recently, two of the world’s premier energy agencies — International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) — produced a joint report that tries to answer that question. Here’s the blunt summary:
“Limiting the global mean temperature rise to below 2°C with a probability of 66% would require an energy transition of exceptional scope, depth and speed. Energy-related CO2 emissions would need to peak before 2020 and fall by more than 70% from today’s levels by 2050 … An ambitious set of policy measures, including the rapid phase out of fossil fuel subsidies, CO2 prices rising to unprecedented levels, extensive energy market reforms, and stringent low-carbon and energy efficiency mandates would be needed to achieve this transition. Such policies would need to be introduced immediately and comprehensively across all countries … with CO2 prices reaching up to US dollars (USD) 190 per tonne of CO2.”
And here is their key chart showing annual energy-related CO2 emissions. Note the 50 percent surge since 1990 … and the need to reverse it by 2030.
Press link for more: National Observer