Global carbon dioxide emissions spike to critical record despite COVID-19 year

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FILE – In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

In the year since coronavirus shut down a majority of the world, carbon dioxide emissions have steadily been increasing. Over the weekend at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii, where some of the purest air measurements are taken, a record 421.21 parts per million of carbon dioxide was taken.

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring greenhouse gas that comes from things like decaying vegetation and biomass, venting volcanoes and naturally occurring wildfires. Due to research from things like carbon dating and ice cores, it is believes that the pre-industrial revolution CO2 emissions were in the ballpark of around 278 parts per million.

The 421.21 parts per million count from Saturday is a grim milestone for anthropogenic climate change. In roughly 200 years, the amount of CO2 has doubled the amount it took billions of years to accumulate to. The amount has never exceeded 420 parts per million until now.

According to an article from The Washington Post, “We’re completely certain that the increase in CO2 is warming the planet,” Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA, wrote in an email. “I’m even more certain CO2 causes global heating than I am that smoking causes cancer. The world is already more than 2 [degrees Fahrenheit] warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.”

Authors Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow say “in addition to the temperature increase, a warmer atmosphere supports more instances of drought in some areas and flooding in others, along with stronger hurricanes and typhoons and the potential for more storms to rapidly intensify in dangerous, unpredictable ways”.

Higher CO2 concentration levels have lasting effects across the globe. About half of the emitted CO2 stays in the atmosphere. But about a quarter of it is absorbed into the oceans where acidification occurs and disrupts ecosystems and marine life.

A worrying concern with carbon dioxide is that it accumulates in the atmosphere. Meaning, even if all greenhouse gasses were to cease to exist overnight, it would be years before any lasting changes would occur. It also explains why even in a year where lots of large CO2 emitters were placed on hold during 2020, CO2 parts per million counts continued to rise.

“CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute in California, wrote in an email. “The amount of warming that the world is experiencing is a result of all of our emissions since the industrial revolution — not just our emissions in the last year.”

As the climate continues to change, it’s of great importance to begin taking actions now and initiate policy that can deter any future implications. Climate change is here, it’s happening. But it’s still not too late to avert the worst of what can happen if no action continues.

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