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Source: istock

CO2 in atmosphere reaches all-time high, making Paris Agreement goals more and more distant

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We know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are alarmingly high — but new data from two key reports show that CO2 levels are the highest they've been in millions of years (literally). And considering CO2 in the atmosphere contributes to global heating, a major component of the climate crisis with drastic consequences, this data cannot be ignored.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin on Monday, Nov. 25, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published its annual Emissions Gap Report on Tuesday, Nov. 26. The two reports work hand-in-hand to highlight the severity of the climate emergency.

According to the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, in 2018, the global average CO2 concentration reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm). In 2017, the concentration was 405.5 ppm, meaning the global concentration went up by 2.3 ppm. As the WMO noted, that's a slightly higher increase than was observed between 2016 and 2017 (and between previous years), which shows that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is steadily rising.

“There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change," WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the 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."

According to the UNEP'S annual Emissions Gap Report, global CO2 emissions have increased by 11 percent since 2010, which is when the UNEP published an Emissions Gap Report for the first time, as reported by Carbon Brief. The report suggests that the world is not on track to achieve the goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5°C by 2030, as dictated by the Paris Agreement — rather, we are on track for a temperature rise of more than 3°C in that time frame.


The UNEP says that if we want a fighting chance of keeping the temperature rise below 1.5°C by 2030, we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6 percent every year for the next 10 years. To do this, the UNEP asserts that the the G20 countries (which are responsible for 78 percent of global emissions) will need to quintuple their climate commitments to close the emissions gap. The G20 members are a group of 20 developed nations that represent about two-thirds of the global population, and includes the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa.

Why is there so much CO2 in the atmosphere?

A variety of human activities puts CO2 into the atmosphere — but one of the primary causes is burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas. In 2017, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy represented about 93 percent of total U.S. human-caused CO2 emissions; they also represented 76 percent of total U.S. human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. CO2 in the atmosphere causes the greenhouse effect, which traps heat and increases the global temperature. Global heating leads to things like melting glaciers, overheating oceans, and rising sea levels, all of which can negatively impact biodiversity and wildlife. 

How can we reduce CO2 in the atmosphere?

The UNEP report suggests a variety of ways countries need to work together to keep the global temperature rise on track — most importantly, the UN believes G20 countries need to strengthen their climate-related commitments. For example, report is encouraging the countries to: submit long-term strategies to the UNFCCC; dramatically strengthen their nationally determined contributions (NDCs); decarbonize the global economy; and shift towards renewable energy sources while phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

On a personal level, there are plenty of things we can all do to reduce our personal greenhouse gas emissions. You can take small steps to reduce your carbon footprint and energy use around the house; quit single-use plastic and commit to going zero waste; transition to eating a vegan diet; and stop buying new things.