A new report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the body for the United Nations’ meteorology experts confirms that levels of the main greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane - are now all at record levels.
Average global CO2 levels in 2017 were 405.5 parts per million - almost 50% higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution. WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said that the last time there was a similar level of CO2 in our atmosphere was 3-5 million years ago, when sea levels were 10-20 metres higher than today and the average global temperature was 2-3C higher.
Levels of methane - a gas delivering up to 28 times greater warming impacts than CO2 - are now at 1,859 parts per billion, around 2.5 times higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution. Emissions are coming from the burps and farts of the planet’s 1.5 billion cattle, from rice paddies, leaks from oil and gas wells and from methane freed from permafrost in the Arctic as it continues to thaw.
Permafrost is ground that is frozen year-round. In the Arctic, ice-rich permafrost soils can be up to 80 metres thick. Thanks to the warming effects of increased greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, a gradual thawing of the permafrost is currently taking place where the upper layer of seasonally thawed soil is gradually getting thicker and reaching deeper into the ground. This thawing process wakes up microbes in the soil that decompose organic matter in the soil, releasing carbon dioxide and methane back into the atmosphere in the process.
The concentration of nitrous oxide (N2O) in the atmosphere is now at 332ppm, roughly 120% of pre-Industrial times, with about 40% of N2O coming from human activities.
As a species, we still need to come to terms with the changes that we need to make if we don’t want to see climate change running completely out of control. Low-carbon technologies and wind energy have to be pushed out much more rapidly to replace fossil fuels.
But Patricia Espinosa, head of the UN framework convention on climate change said “Greenhouse gas emissions have yet to peak and countries struggle to maintain the concentrated…effort needed for a successful approach to climate change…[but that] climate action is… increasing and there is a will to do more. I highlight this because falling into despair and hopelessness is a danger equal to complacency”.
On 3 December, the world’s climate negotiators will gather in Katowice, Poland for the COP24 meeting, at which they will discuss putting the Paris climate agreement into action and outlining their (hopefully much increased) ambitions for cutting future greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s hope that they are mindful of this report and of last month’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).