As the U.N. Climate Change Conference proceeds this week and next in Bonn, Germany (November 6-17, 2017), negotiators will be trying to hammer out a rule book for the Paris climate agreement reached two years ago. Among many other factors, they will be considering a report released in late October by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an intergovernmental organization with a membership of 191 member states and territories. The WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin for 2016 compiles data from 51 countries. In it, the WMO said that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years. WMO said in a statement:
The abrupt changes in the atmosphere witnessed in the past 70 years are without precedent.
Globally averaged concentrations of CO2 reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400.00 ppm in 2015 because of a combination of human activities and a strong El Niño event.
According to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, concentrations of CO2 are now 145 per cent of pre-industrial levels, that is, levels before 1750. WMO explained:
Population growth, intensified agricultural practices, increases in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil fuel sources have all contributed to increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the industrial era, beginning in 1750.
Since 1990, there has been a 40% increase in total radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – by all long-lived greenhouse gases, and a 2.5% increase from 2015 to 2016 alone, according to figures from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quoted in the bulletin.
The WMO report urged action now and emphasized that rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have the potential to initiate unprecedented changes in climate systems, leading to:
… severe ecological and economic disruptions.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said:
Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, we will be heading for dangerous temperature increases by the end of this century, well above the target set by the Paris climate change agreement. Future generations will inherit a much more inhospitable planet.
CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and in the oceans for even longer. The laws of physics mean that we face a much hotter, more extreme climate in the future. There is currently no magic wand to remove this CO2 from the atmosphere.
In an interview with the Voice of America in late October, Taalas also said:
We have far exceeded [the] natural variability that took place in the past and we are giving extra energy for our planet. We have already started seeing a growing amount of natural disasters related to weather. And, for example, the economic losses related to these disasters, they have tripled since the ’80s. So, that is a consequence of climate change.
The WMO said that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 in its atmosphere was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now.
As for the role of the U.S. in this ongoing climate conference, Donald Trump said earlier in 2017 that he would pull our country out of the Paris Agreement. The withdrawal process takes three years, however, leaving the United States as a signatory until then. President Trump has sent a small delegation to Bonn that will try to continue to shape the rules of the agreement.
Otherwise, almost all U.N. states are committed to the accord, with the U.S. standing as an exception.
UPDATE: As of November 7, 2017, the day this story was published, Syria has said it was preparing to join the Paris Agreement, leaving the U.S. as the only nation in the world now stating it prefers to be outside the deal.
Bottom line: As climate talks open in Bonn, Germany this week, negotiators are considering a report from the World Meteorological Organization, based on data from 51 countries, saying that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.