News|Climate Crisis
Greenhouse gas levels hit record high in 2020: UN report
UN weather agency warns the world is ‘way off track’ on reaching goals for capping rising temperatures.
Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are gases that warm the planet, triggering extreme weather events [File: Charlie Riedel/AP]
25 Oct 2021
Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere hit a new record high in 2020, the United Nations’ weather agency reported in a stark warning about worsening global warming.
Monday’s annual report on heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) showed that carbon dioxide levels surged to 413.2 parts per million in 2020, increasing at a faster rate than the annual average over the last decade despite a temporary dip in emissions during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
The report said concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – the gases that are warming the planet and triggering extreme weather events like heatwaves and intense rainfall – were all above levels in the pre-industrial era before 1750, when human activities “started disrupting Earth’s natural equilibrium”.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warned the current rate of increase in heat-trapping gases would result in temperature rises “far in excess” of 1.5C (2.7F) above the pre-industrial average this century – the target set out by in the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement.
“We are way off track,” Taalas said.
“We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life,” he added, before calling for a “dramatic increase” in commitments at the upcoming COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Many environmental activists, policymakers and scientists say the October 31-November 12 event marks an important and even crucial opportunity for concrete commitments to the targets set out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Representatives from nearly 200 countries will attend the summit.
‘No time to lose’
The WMO report drew on information collected by a network that monitors the amount of greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere after some quantities are absorbed by oceans and the biosphere.
The 2020 increase in the global average of carbon dioxide concentrations came despite a 5.6 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels due to COVID-19 restrictions, it said.
Taalas said a level above 400 parts per million “has major negative repercussions for our daily lives and wellbeing, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren”.
“We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life,” he said. “The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible. There is no time to lose.”
The report added that early readings showed levels of carbon dioxide, the gas that makes the biggest contribution to warming, continued to rise in 2021.
Even if deep emissions cuts are made now, climate scientists say the warming trend will remain intact because past carbon dioxide emissions stay in the atmosphere for centuries.
The WMO report also flagged concerns about the ability of the ocean and land to absorb roughly half of the carbon dioxide emissions, saying that ocean uptake might be reduced due to higher sea surface temperatures and other factors.
These so-called “sinks” act as a buffer and prevent the possibility of more dramatic temperature increases.
Human-incurred carbon dioxide emissions, which result mostly from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas or from cement production, amount to about two-thirds of the warming effect on the climate.
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