Greenhouse Gas Levels Hit Record High For Another Year, Despite Lockdowns

The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest source of carbon dioxide, which causes the majority of global heating. Image credit: Bilanol/Shutterstock.com

Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere hit a record high last year, despite the economic slowdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite all the memes, it looks like Earth wasn't healing after all. 

The findings come from the latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO). They show that the concentration of carbon dioxide reached 413.2 parts per million in 2020, making levels 149 percent above those seen in the pre-industrial era. The concentration of methane is 262 percent above levels seen in the 18th century, while nitrous oxide is 123 percent higher. 

Although the COVID-19 lockdowns did see some notable short-term dip in greenhouse gas emissions, it was not enough to negate the long-term trend. In fact, on the contrary, all of the rises of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere seen in 2020 were above the average annual rate of increase seen between 2011-2020, meaning the rate of emissions actually ramped up overall. 

Greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere warm the Earth by absorbing energy and slowing the rate at which the energy escapes to space. The latest bulletin shows the warming effect of long-lived greenhouse gases on our climate increased by 47 percent between 1990 to 2020, with carbon dioxide accounting for about 80 percent of the rise. 

The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest source of carbon dioxide, which causes the majority of global heating. Carbon dioxide also hangs around in the atmosphere for a relatively long time. While significant amounts are taken up by oceans and land ecosystems, carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere will continue to persist for decades to come, even if greenhouse gas emissions are drastically slashed today. 

By coincidence, the new bulletin comes just in time for the COP26 climate change conference set to kick off this Sunday in Glasgow. Professor Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, says the latest findings show “[w]e are way off track” when it comes to conquering the climate crisis.

“The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a stark, scientific message for climate change negotiators at COP26. At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius [34.7 to 35.6 °F] above pre-industrial levels,” Professor Taalas said in a statement.

“The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere breached the milestone of 400 parts per million in 2015. And just five years later, it exceeded 413 ppm. This is more than just a chemical formula and figures on a graph. It has major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren,” added Professor Taalas.

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