Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere continued to climb last year at a rate that even the COVID-19 pandemic was unable to reduce, according to an international report.
The result, released on Monday by the World Meteorological Organization, is proof that the planet is moving further and further away from the Paris Agreement’s climate goal of keeping global warming below 2 ° C. on average in the world.
For delegates heading to the climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland next week, the result is a reminder that countries will need to dramatically improve their efforts to cut emissions to avoid some of the change’s most serious effects. climate. Scientists have already shown that serious events, such as last summer’s heatwave in the Pacific Northwest and flooding in Europe, can be attributed to the global warming of around 1 ° C that has already occurred. since 1900.
Based on data collected from 130 stations around the world, including Canada, the new report is the latest in a series of annual snapshots of the state of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In precise numbers, it shows that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 413 parts per million in 2020 and is increasing at a rate of an additional 2.5 parts per million each year.
“It’s not just increasing, it’s increased faster than average over the past 10 years,” said Oksana Tarasova, who heads the meteorological organization’s global atmosphere monitoring program, based in Geneva Switzerland.
Increases have also been observed in the concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide, the next two most abundant greenhouse gases. And while carbon dioxide emissions temporarily fell about 5.6% last year, mostly due to lockdowns from COVID-19, the effect on the total level of concentration was practically negligible, said the Dr Tarasova.
Collectively, the measurements place the Earth on a course that deviates significantly from target 2C. Taking into account the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in August, Dr Tarasova estimated that the current increase in concentration was more in line with the 2.7 ° C of global warming.
“This will fuel many extreme events and future changes in our system,” she added.
A continuous record of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has been maintained since 1958, when observations began atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At that time, the concentration was around 315 parts per million. Since then it has been on an increasingly steep upward slope, with the exception of a seasonal cycle due to plants taking in a little more carbon dioxide in the summer in the northern hemisphere.
Canada has been tracking carbon dioxide since 1975, when measurements began in Alert, Nunavut, in the far north of the country. Nationally, more than 20 stations now perform greenhouse gas measurements using state-of-the-art optical sensors precise enough to distinguish the characteristics of carbon dioxide emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels from those emitted by fossil fuels. from natural sources. .
Felix Vogel, a researcher at Environment and Climate Change Canada based in Toronto, said the international measures to which Canada contributes are anchored by a careful process of cross-checking and benchmarking data from around the world to ensure accuracy.
And while he said this week’s carbon dioxide result shouldn’t come as a surprise – since gas concentrations are so closely related to energy use – he noted that the increase in methane atmospheric was an additional source of concern.
“There is some acceleration in methane emissions if you compare over the last decade,” he said. “And methane, in particular, is something that has a very high warming potential. “
In recent years, significant methane leaks from oil and gas fields have become the target of a new generation of satellite and airborne surveys. However, these methods are unlikely to detect smaller leaks associated with local natural gas distribution or landfills.
“There is a real impetus to try to harness methane,” said Dr Vogel, calling the effort a win-win because it reduces losses for suppliers. In the long term, he said, a concerted effort to reduce foreign releases would be more likely to have a more lasting impact than a sudden short-term reduction like the one that occurred during the pandemic.
Dr Tarasova added that significant reductions in methane and nitrous oxide emissions, especially in the oil and gas sector and in agriculture, could be achieved by making better use of available data even as countries continue to improve. debate to reduce carbon emissions. dioxide.
“There are many solutions, but there is no one solution that fits all because all economies are different,” she said.
Eddy Pérez, director of international climate diplomacy for the Canadian Climate Network, an advocacy organization, said the latest greenhouse gas results show how little room for maneuver countries have as they are trying to find a way forward.
“We’re at a point right now … where critically every ton of emissions we are able to avoid has huge impacts on how we prepare for a warming future,” he said. declared.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update bulletins are written by The Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. register today.