climate change

The carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere grew at an unprecedented rate in 2016



The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere hits the highest level ever during human habitation on Earth.


By Anders Lorenzen 

The newest edition of the UN’s annually released Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, compiled by UN agencies the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) & Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW), was released this week. Its findings are sobering, if you accept the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. The report states that the concentration of greenhouse gasses (GHG) in the atmosphere saw record growth in 2016.

The most important GHG when it comes to human-induced climate change is of course CO2. The report found that in 2016 concentrations grew by 3.3 parts per million (ppm), taking the global average to 403 ppm – the highest level ever recorded in the atmosphere during the time of human habitation on Earth. The increase of 3.3 ppm in 2016 is a new record and beats the previous record set between 2012 and 2013. The authors of the report believe that it is not only the release of CO2 emissions from human activity that is to blame but also natural phenomenon’s. The El Niño (warming) event in 2015/2016 contributed to the increased growth rate through complex interactions between global atmospheric circulation systems and the carbon cycle.

But why is this happening now? Our energy systems are becoming cleaner, year on year, steps are being taken to decarbonise our economy and annual CO2 emissions have actually slowed down, maybe even stalling. According to the science, the El Niño event intensified droughts, therefore weakened the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon dioxide. And as a double edge sword, as the planet warms, El Niños are expected to become more frequent.

In recent years the annual release of CO2 emissions has, indeed, slowed down or even plateaued. The latest edition of the Global Carbon Budget projects Confirmed that.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has rapidly increased since the industrial age began in 1750. Pre- the industrial age, the concentration stood at 280 ppm, or below, for 800,000 years. The report states that a growing population, intensified agricultural practices, increases in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil fuel sources have all contributed to increases in the atmospheric abundances of GHGs since the advent of the industrial era.

Scientists believe in order to achieve a safe and livable climate, avoiding runaway climate change, the CO2 concentration must be brought down to 350 PPM as soon as possible.

The report stressed that action needs to be taken now and the longer we wait to implement the Paris Agreement, the greater the commitment and the more drastic (and expensive) the required future emission reductions will need to be to keep climate change within critical limits.

Campaigners have reacted with worry to the news, with the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Chief Scientific Adviser Dr Stephen Cornelius, stating: “The effects of climate change are clearer each day. From the Arctic changing in our lifetime to recent floods in South-East Asia, there is an urgent need for greater action. Our global emissions gap is widening and we must close this. If we cannot, it will make our Paris Climate Agreement targets a mere pipedream.”

Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International’s Executive Director said: “Paris was just the starting point. Faster, bolder action is needed. Leaders must emerge in Bonn (COP23) and use the platform to take stronger action and hold others to account if they fail to live up to their obligations. We can still achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius if we all work together.”


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