The scale of the challenge faced by governments and businesses as they work to build a net zero emission economy this century was hammered home again today, as new research revealed atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions soared last year.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, confirming concentrations of carbon emissions reached their highest level in 800,000 years during 2016.
The report found global average concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million (ppm) in 2016, representing a sharp rise on the 400.00 ppm seen in 2015.
Concentrations of CO2 are now 145 per cent of pre-industrial (before 1750) levels, the WMO said, adding that rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases have the potential to trigger “severe ecological and economic disruptions”.
Since 1990, there has been a 40 per cent increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – by all long-lived greenhouse gases, and a 2.5 per cent increase from 2015 to 2016 alone, according to figures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quoted in the bulletin.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned the resultant warming could have a major impact on the global economy.
“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris climate change agreement,” he said in a statement. “Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. The laws of physics mean that we face a much hotter, more extreme climate in the future. There is currently no magic wand to remove this CO2 from the atmosphere.”
The report notes that the rate of increase in manmade emissions has slowed in recent years – a fact again highlighted today in a separate report from consultancy PwC.
However, it explained that a strong El Niño contributed to a relatively big rise in overall concentrations. “It is the largest increase we have ever seen in the 30 years we have had this network,” Dr Oksana Tarasova, chief of WMO’s global atmosphere watch programme, told BBC News. “The largest increase was in the previous El Niño, in 1997-1998 and it was 2.7ppm and now it is 3.3ppm, it is also 50 per cent higher than the average of the last 10 years.”
The results will also further fuel fears that rising temperatures are compromising the ability of the world’s carbon sinks to absorb greenhouse gas emissions and triggering increases in methane emissions.
The report confirmed increases in methane concentrations were above the average level for the last 10 years.
Prof Euan Nisbet from Royal Holloway University of London told BBC News the rise in methane emissions appeared to be unrelated to fossil fuels. “We do not understand why methane is rising,” he admitted. “It may be a climate change feedback. It is very worrying.”
Scientists have long warned rising global temperatures could trigger tipping points, where they contribute to forest die-off or permafrost melting that releases more methane, which in turn fuels further temperature increases.
The WMO update comes ahead of a separate report tomorrow from the UN Environment Programme, which will assess emissions reduction policies deployed by governments through to 2030 and measure them against the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said UNEP’s Erik Solheim. “We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed. The last few years have seen enormous uptake of renewable energy, but we must now redouble our efforts to ensure these new low-carbon technologies are able to thrive. We have many of the solutions already to address this challenge. What we need now is global political will and a new sense of urgency.”
His comments echo PwC’s report today, which argued the carbon intensity of the global economy fell 2.6 per cent last year as the roll out of clean technologies continued to accelerate. But it also warned the world remained a long way short of the 6.3 per cent annual fall in carbon intensity that is required to deliver emissions reductions that are compatible with the 2C temperature goal set out in the Paris Agreement.
The flurry of reports comes ahead of next month’s annual UN climate summit in Bonn where government’s will face fresh calls to finalise the rules underpinning the Paris Agreement, step up domestic climate action, and resist any US attempts to undermine the international accord.