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Photo: Carbon Visuals

The Damage Is Done

Scientists measuring greenhouse gases and climatic alterations feel we’ve “passed the point of no return,” and those alive today probably won’t be around to see carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations fall below 400 parts per million in the atmosphere.

CO2 is a natural part of the planet’s ecosystem, but since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, humans have been emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere than the planet would naturally produce on its own. By the mid-1800s, concentrations reached roughly 280 parts per million. And since atmospheric carbon traps the thermal energy of the sun, the more CO2 we put in the air, the incrementally warmer the planet becomes.

Actual volume of one metric ton of carbon dioxide gas. (Photo Credit: Carbon Visuals / Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Actual volume of one metric ton of carbon dioxide gas. (Photo Credit: Carbon Visuals / Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Unless humans drastically reduce their CO2 emissions, enough carbon will enter the atmosphere to increase the planet’s average temperature by two degrees or more by the end of this century. And if the planet becomes just two degrees hotter on average, it will suffer a range of terrible consequences, including significant increases in wildfires, hurricane intensity, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, heat waves and coastal floods.

More CO2 means more climate change, and climate change is exacerbated by weather patterns like El Niño. El Niño dries out tropical regions, lessens tree growth and fuels wildfires like a rampaging arsonist. We’re also spewing out CO2 faster than plants and other natural remedies can remove them, so even in September, when concentrations tend to be at their lowest, they’re not likely to be under 400 parts per million. That’s a grim prediction, indeed.

“Global Carbon Emissions from Fossil-fuels 1900-2011. Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres R.J. (2015). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

“Global Carbon Emissions from Fossil-fuels 1900-2011. Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres R.J. (2015). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

“I don’t think anything sort of special will happen just because we’re going past 400,” says Richard Betts of the U.K. Met Office’s Hadley Center. “But I do think these numbers are important for awareness, really… It’s a reminder of the long-term effects we’re having on the system.”

Betts also explains that, while chances are small, there’s still potential to experience a day that dips below 400 per million somewhere down the line. Studies like these tend to be fairly solid in terms of research and analytical data, but they’re never 100 percent accurate or certain.

“Daily values will be most likely to stay above 400 ppm,” the scientist adds. “Although values slightly below remain a small possibility.”

Betts states that the primary problem is not with the emissions themselves, but rather with the longevity of carbon dioxide. The life of CO2 is longer than most greenhouse gases, so it’s not plausible to think that even by 2050, 34 years from now, present day numbers will shrink.

“In the longer term, a reduction in CO2 concentration would require substantial and sustained cuts in anthropogenic emissions to near zero,” he writes in a new report.

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