Science, Now + Beyond

Here’s what’s happened to world CO2 levels this year (spoiler alert: it’s bad)

The World Meteorological Organisation's announcement hat the world has reached 400ppm is devastating news for the future of our planet.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released a statement this week announcing that world CO2 levels have passed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. For the record, that’s not a good thing.

The number of carbon dioxide particles in our atmosphere is a useful measurement for predicting global warming and the health of our planet. As a greenhouse gas, CO2 can raise global temperatures and spark climate change in high levels. Though scientists vary on their approximations of ideal global CO2 levels, everyone agrees that is should be under 350 ppm. WMOs announcement this week that the world had crossed the 400 ppm boundary is devastating news for the future of our planet.

During 2015, the WMO recorded global CO2 levels, as well as world temperatures and climate activity. Internationally, 2015 was a year of strange weather patterns with the El Niño event raising many countries’ temperatures. Yet, at the same time 2015 was the year of the Paris climate change agreements where almost 200 governments promised to give up fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources over the next century.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas reflected on 2015 stating, “The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations.” On the climate changes driven by El Niño, he stated, “[It] has disappeared. Climate change has not.”

Perhaps even scarier than the fact that the world has crossed the 400 ppm boundary is what future generations might face. This is the first time in recorded history that the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere has reached 400 ppm and the rapid rate of CO2 increases suggests that 400 ppm may not be the highest concentration we reach.

In fact, CO2 levels are nearly 44% higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution and are rising every year.  In its statement, the WMO refers to a CO2 measuring observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii with records daring back to 1958. The Mauna Loa observatory predicts that “carbon dioxide concentrations will stay above 400 ppm for the whole of 2016 and not dip below that level for many generations.”

Going forward, the future of our planet and climate change will depend on political will and personal action. As Taalas stated during a news conference in Geneva, “The key issue here is to go from this kind of political will to concrete action. So far we haven’t seen a major change in the behaviour.” WMO atmospheric environment research chief Oksana Tarasova echoed Taalas by arguing, “The technology is there. It’s just human will. If we want we can do it.”

Even with major political changes, it’s still going to be a difficult road to stopping global warming. With CO2 levels already this high, reversing global warming will be much more difficult than simply stopping its progression. As climate change scientists have stated, CO2 can last in the atmosphere for generations, and even longer in the world’s oceans.

If we’re going to get serious about stopping global warming, it might be now or never.