Environmentalists around the world winced when global CO2 levels surged past 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history in 2014. Now, it looks like that record is the new normal, as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) believes 2016 will be the first full year to exceed the 400 ppm benchmark, in large part due to this year’s strong El Niño event.
While CO2 emissions remained relatively static between 2014 and 2015, El Niño’s onset caused a dramatic carbon spike in the atmosphere. Due to the drought conditions it caused in tropical regions, vegetation was less able to soak up excess CO2. And that’s to say nothing of the carbon emissions from wildfires sparked by the dry weather.
Though the extreme El Niño has passed, scientists expect the spike in CO2 levels to last for “many generations” to come. That’s terrifying – especially when you realize that the last time CO2 levels were regularly above 400 ppm was three to five million years ago. Prior to 1800 and the advent of industrialization, atmospheric levels averaged closer to 280 ppm, according to NOAA.
The weather conditions that led to this new record have ended, but the damage we’re continuing to do to our environment is ongoing. The WMO argues that unless carbon emissions are dramatically slashed, humanity is likely to blow past the 2-degree global temperature rise that most scientists agree is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the organization, believes the new milestone is a wake-up call of sorts, and that “It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Paris Agreement does indeed enter into force well ahead of schedule on 4 November and that we fast-track its implementation.” We can only hope his warnings are taken into account when the 200 nations that have signed the Paris agreement meet in Morocco next month to discuss the next steps forward.