CO2 levels are now 50% higher than before the Industrial Revolution

2021 on track to be the first year that surpasses pre-industrial carbon dioxide emissions by more than 50%, study reveals

  • Atmospheric CO2 is now 50% more than before the Industrial Revolution
  • The average was 417.14ppm last month, but is expected to hit 419.5ppm in May
  • Average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for 1750 to 1800 was 278ppm 
  • This year will be the first on record to hit over 50% of pre-industrial levels 

This year is on track to be the first on record that surpasses pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a new study reveals. 

The analysis shows carbon dioxide (CO2) has continued to build up since and is now 50 percent higher as of March 2021.

Observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii calculate the average was 417.14 parts per million (ppm) last month, but experts predict it will peak at 419.5ppm in May.

Records derived from ice core measurements show that the average global CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for 1750 to 1800 was around 278ppm.

This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the coronavirus pandemic that saw a dramatic drop due to businesses shuttered and people under some type of lockdown.

The analysis shows carbon dioxide (CO2) has continued to build up since and is now 50 percent higher as of March 2021. Observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii calculate the average was 417.14 parts per million (ppm) last month, but experts predict it will peak at 419.5ppm in May.

Although Earth saw a huge spike in carbon dioxide emissions during the pre-industrial era, the recent analysis suggests our modern world is much worse.

Professor Simon Lewis, from University College London, said: ‘It is easy to forget just how much and just how fast fossil fuel emissions are affecting our planet.

‘It took over 200 years to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25%, and just 30 years to reach 50% above pre-industrial levels.

‘This dramatic change is like a human meteorite hitting Earth.’

Records derived from ice core measurements show that the average global CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for 1750 to 1800 was around 278ppm

The study was a conducted by the University of California San Diego, The Met Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The previous record for monthly CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa in the Scripps dataset was 417.10 ppm in May 2020, but the same amount was measure for several days in February and early March of this year.

Professor Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the Met, shared in a release: ‘The usual springtime upward trend will soon take concentrations above this level for the next three to four months.

‘Therefore, 2021 is expected to be the first year on record with CO2 levels more than 50 percent above pre-industrial levels for longer than a few days.’ 

The previous record for monthly CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa in the Scripps dataset was 417.10 ppm in May 2020, but the same amount was measure for several days in February and early March of this year

Experts said: ‘It took over 200 years to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25%, and just 30 years to reach 50% above pre-industrial levels. ‘This dramatic change is like a human meteorite hitting Earth’ (pictured New York in the pre-industrial era)

The data was combined with ice core samples, which tell scientist about temperature, precipitation, atmospheric composition, volcanic activity, and even wind patterns.

Together, the methods showed the annual average CO2 concentration is increasing year-on-year. 

This is mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels, with further contributions from deforestation.

The team also determined human-driven emissions have increased – it took two centuries to see emissions increase by 25 percent.

By 2011, there was a 40 percent increase from the Industrial Revolution and then we have the most recent spike of 50 percent. 

Commenting on the latest data, Professor Martin Siegert, of the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, said the new record high was completely expected.

‘Emissions may have been reduced but we are still emitting lots of carbon dioxide, and so its atmospheric concentration is bound to go up – and will continue to do so until we get to somewhere near net-zero emissions.

‘Our path to net zero is obvious, challenging and necessary – and we must get on with the transition urgently,’ he said.

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution

Emissions

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Particulates

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 

 

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.  

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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