Carbon Sinks Becoming Carbon Generators
Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record last year, despite the pandemic lockdown. The world will reach new records in 2021 according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It’s been at least 3 million years since earth had a comparable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Given the long lifespan of CO2, the temperature levels experienced on the planet today will persist for several decades even if emissions are rapidly reduced to net zero. Alongside rising temperatures, this means more weather extremes including intense heat and rainfall, ice melt, sea-level rise and ocean acidification, accompanied by far-reaching socioeconomic impacts.
All key greenhouse gases (GHG) rose faster in 2020 than over the previous decade. The trend has continued in 2021. The science will add fuel to the fire as world leaders to meet to discuss the climate crisis next week in Glasgow. The U.S., China and the European Union are responsible for the majority of global carbon emissions.
“We are way off track,” said WMO’s Petteri Taalas, “At the current rate of increase in GHG concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5C to 2C. Rising levels of GHGs have major negative repercussions for our daily lives and wellbeing, and for the future of our children and grandchildren. It is hoped Cop26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments. We must transform our commitment into action that will reduce GHGs. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life – the needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible.”
The negotiators at the COP26 summit must deliver action to keep alive the goal of ending GHG emissions by 2050 and avoiding the worst climate impacts.
Only stopping emissions will stabilize the levels of the gases and halt the temperature rises that drive the increasing damage from heat, floods and droughts. The burning of coal, oil and gas is the biggest source of CO2, which is the cause of 66 percent of global heating. CO2 emissions fell by about 5 percent in 2020 due to COVID restrictions, compared to 2019. But many billions of tons of CO2 were still pumped into the atmosphere, meaning the pandemic slowdown had little impact on the atmospheric levels of GHG.
Roughly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by human activities today remains in the atmosphere. Natural ecosystems, including forests and oceans, absorb the other half of the carbon in the air. The fraction of emissions remaining in the atmosphere, called airborne fraction (AF), is an important indicator of the balance between carbon sources and carbon sinks.
The WMO warned that global warming is damaging the ability of the natural world to take up carbon emissions. Deforestation has decimated the forests of the world.
The Amazon basin once absorbed tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Thanks to the fires and droughts associated with expanding agriculture, this critical ecosystem—and others around the world—is vanishing.
Methane accounts for about 16 percent of global heating and the majority of its emissions are caused by human activity such as cattle farming and fossil fuel production. Methane is a potent and relatively short-lived GHG, so cutting emissions has a rapid impact. In addition, nitrous oxide is responsible for about 7 percent of global warming. Farming and livestock manure are the major sources.Data from the monitoring stations clearly show that levels of CO2 continued to increase in 2021. In July 2021, CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa (Hawaii, US) and Cape Grim (Tasmania, Australia) reached 416.96 ppm and 412.1 ppm, respectively, in comparison with 414.62 ppm, and 410.03 ppm in July 2020.
The climate report comes ahead of next week’s international climate meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, which is seeks to cut GHG emissions. One way to pay for climate action is to redirect more than $400 billion in public subsidies that governments give to fossil fuel companies every year. Subsidies must be cut. Unfortunately, they are increasing.
A poll in G20 countries found large majorities of people under 18 believe that the climate emergency requires action now. There are no silver bullets in the battle against global warming, but cutting subsidies to oil and coal companies is a critical first step to level the playing field and return to a free market economy, which can promote efficiency.