The World of International Organizations

WMO says CO2 levels again at record high

Heavy air pollution from brick kilns serving Bangladesh's rapid development (AN/Bryan Katz)
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GENEVA — Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a record high in 2019 and are expected to keep rising this year despite an economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N. weather agency said on Monday.

The World Meteorological Organization’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reported that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere hit a new record of 410.5 parts per million last year.

That is an increase of 2.7 ppm from the previous year and 46 percent higher than before the Industrial Age, when levels were about 280 parts per million.

“We breached the global threshold of 400 parts per million in 2015. And just four years later, we crossed 410 ppm,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, a Finnish meteorologist, said in a statement.

“Such a rate of increase has never been seen in the history of our records,” he said. “The lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph. We need a sustained flattening of the curve.”

‘No time to lose’

Although the pandemic slowed industrial activity that causes emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other global warming pollutants, it has not curbed record concentrations of gases in the atmosphere, where they trap heat like in a greenhouse and raise global average temperatures, causing more extreme weather, ice melt, sea-level rise and ocean acidification, according to WMO.

CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries, and persists in oceans even longer. Scientists have calculated that similar concentrations of CO2 existed in the atmosphere about three to five million years ago, but Taalas noted there weren’t 7.7 billion people living on the planet then.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not a solution for climate change,” he said, adding that nothing less than a global reduction to net zero emissions is needed through a complete transformation of the planet’s industrial, energy and transport systems. “There is no time to lose.”

In looking at trends this year, WMO pointed to estimates from Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration, that indicated daily carbon emissions may have been reduced by up to 17 percent globally during the pandemic due to government-ordered lockdowns that forced people to remain at home.

Preliminary estimates indicate the slowed industrial activity might have resulted in a decline of between 4.2 percent and 7.5 percent in annual global CO2 emissions, but that is not enough to cause atmospheric concentrations to slow down, according to WMO. “CO2 will continue to go up,” it said, “though at a slightly reduced pace.”

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