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A woman looks at wildfires tearing through a forest in the region of Chefchaouen in northern Morocco on August 15, 2021.

A woman looks at wildfires tearing through a forest in the region of Chefchaouen in northern Morocco on August 15, 2021. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

Humanity 'Way Off Track': WMO Says Atmospheric Carbon at Level Unseen in 3 Million Years

The new report has "a stark, scientific message for climate change negotiators at COP 26," said the head of the World Meteorological Organization.

Andrea Germanos

Carbon dioxide concentrations reached a new record high in 2020, with comparable levels not seen for roughly 3 million years, the United Nations weather agency said Monday.

"There is no time to lose."

The findings came in the latest edition of the World Meteorological Organization's Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released a week before COP 26—the U.N. climate summit—kicks off in Glasgow.

According to WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas, the report holds "a stark, scientific message for climate change negotiators" headed to the summit. 

The bulletin said globally averaged levels of CO2, as well as two other potent greenhouse gases—methane and nitrous oxide—were all up from the previous year.

CO2 reached 413.2 parts per million (ppm) in 2020—149% of the pre-industrial level. The increase from 2019 levels came despite pandemic-triggered lockdowns triggering an approximately 5.6% drop in fossil fuel CO2.

Methane stood at 262% and nitrous oxide at 123% of pre-industrial levels, the report said.

"At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels," he said in a statement, warning, “We are way off track."

"The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere breached the milestone of 400 parts per million in 2015. And just five years later, it exceeded 413 ppm," Taalas added. "This is more than just a chemical formula and figures on a graph. It has major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet, and for the future of our children and grandchildren."

“Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and in the ocean for even longer," said Taalas. "The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now."

The report also warned that land and oceans' ability to continue serving as carbon sinks, sucking up about half of CO2 emissions, could be negatively affected by climate crisis-related changes such as wildfires.

Urging countries to turn "commitment into action," Taalas said, "There is no time to lose."

Dave Reay, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, also tied the bulletin's findings to the upcoming U.N climate summit.

"The true success, or failure, of COP 26 will be written in our skies in the form of greenhouse gas concentrations," he said in a statement.  “This new report from the WMO provides a brutally frank assessment of what's been written there to date."

"So far," he said, "it's an epic fail."

"Will this 26th COP find success where the previous 25 have fallen short?" Reay asked. "Our atmosphere will bear witness."


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