The level of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere is now more than 50% higher than during the pre-industrial era, further pushing the planet into conditions not experienced for millions of years, well before the emergence of humans, US government data shows.

The latest measurements showing the relentless upward march of CO2 follows scientists’ new warning that the world may still barrel into disastrous climate change even if planet-heating emissions are drastically cut, which governments are still failing to achieve.

“It’s depressing that we’ve lacked the collective will power to slow the relentless rise in CO2,” said Ralph Keeling, a geochemist who runs CO2 measurements for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in Hawaii. “Fossil-fuel use may no longer be accelerating, but we are still racing at top speed towards a global catastrophe.”

In May, the Mauna Loa Observatory, perched high on the slopes of a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island, measured a CO2 concentration of 421 parts per million, just the latest escalation in an inexorable rise in CO2 due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

The epochal change in our atmosphere, due to the burning of coal, oil and gas to power our cars, trucks, houses and factories, has already caused severe heatwaves and worsening floods, droughts and storms. These impacts will become catastrophic should global heating advance further, beyond 1.5C above the pre-industrial era, scientists say.

This limit, which was agreed to by the world’s governments in the 2015 Paris climate pact, is now increasingly likely to be breached in the coming decades. A new research paper has found that the lingering effect of past emissions means there is a 42% chance the 1.5C limit will be passed even if emissions are halted immediately.

Despite this, emissions, which dipped during 2020 as COVID-related restrictions kicked in, surged again last year and show no sign of the steep drop needed to avoid severe impacts. “Our study found that in all cases, we are committed by past emissions to reaching peak temperatures about five to 10 years before we experience them,” said Kyle Armour, a climate scientist at the University of Washington and a report co-author.

“What will be more difficult is dealing with a three-degree world. Already this year we’ve seen horrific impacts, like the heatwave in India and Pakistan, and floods in the same region. This is just the beginning.”

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