How Much Carbon Dioxide Is in the Atmosphere? A Massive Increase in 2013 Sets a Record

, , senior climate scientist | September 9, 2014, 3:00 pm EDT
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The atmospheric CO2 increase of 2.9 ppm between 2012 and 2013 was the largest year-to-year change over the 1984 to 2013 period of record from the World Meteorological Organization.This is sobering news when it comes to what is arguably the most important statistic in climate science.

Record rise in atmospheric CO2 set (2012-2013). Source: WMO GHG Bulletin 2014

Record rise in atmospheric CO2 set (2012-2013). Source: WMO GHG Bulletin 2014

The amount of carbon in the atmosphere will largely determine how much climate change we’ll face. If we stay on our current path, we can forget about meeting the internationally agreed-upon goal of avoiding 2°C (3.6°F) of warming. It’s worth pointing out that the announcement comes just before the UN Climate Summit in New York City where many leaders will gather to figure out how to grapple with solutions.

As a species, we have been smart about figuring out how things work, but slow to figure out how to solve this particular problem. Evidence of the heat-trapping role of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was established in 1859 and by the end of that century the discovery emerged that fossil fuel emissions could cause a shift in Earth’s climate. The first confirmation that these emissions were already changing Earth’s temperature emerged during the 1930s.

The accelerating pace of emissions after these discoveries is alarming, with over half emitted since 1970 of the total human CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010. Accelerating emissions has occurred despite the worldwide trend, since 1850, in the mix of primary energy supply shifting away from less carbon-intensive fuels from primarily biomass to primarily coal to more oil and gas in the mix. The latest tracking for each country’s share of CO2 emissions ranks China (27%) and the U.S. (17%) as the top two in 2011. The bulk of 2012 U.S. heat-trapping emissions was in the form of CO2 (82%) with nearly a third of all U.S. emissions that year coming from electricity generation (32%). Additionally, if we look at emissions from the perspective of extracting carbon from the Earth, just 90 companies and other institutions are accountable for two-thirds of all emissions traced to their production since the Industrial Revolution.

Hence the new proposed carbon standards aimed at reducing emissions from existing U.S. power plants tackle one of the largest current sources of global CO2 emissions in the world.  The EPA is currently accepting comments on the proposed rule. If you want to weigh in before the October 16 comment deadline, you may want to check out the analysis by my UCS colleagues on practical steps for making the power plant carbon standards stronger.

 

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  • Scrambley

    I’m astounded that after about 17 years of negligible global temperature increase that an article highlighting a sizable increase in CO2 should attempt to raise the issue as a problem? Isn’t the increase becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes by?

  • Mary

    Well, there you have it. We are reminded by “UCannotStopMe” that the last bastion of the desperate loser is name-calling. No, we cannot stop UCSM from gracing us with his/her childish behavior. And most of us don’t attempt to stop anyone, unlike the festering climate fearmongering eco-fakers hellbent on reducing all of us to a 3rd world standard of living, cultists who are obsessive about stopping our civilization from progressing. See, namecalling is easy. Understanding real problems and finding real solutions is hard. It is a cop out to blithely insinuate everything is caused by evil humans. Yeah, humans are the devil. We get it. OK, on to the next easy political solution to some trendy complex technological problem, right?

  • Paulie777

    Climate, scientists, politicians and developing countries bring out so much of the contradictory nature of humans that it is quite enriching to take and enjoy a big gulp of this folly. The whole climate summit comes with travel, good food, prestige, importance, but its all contradiction and absurdity. The participants are traveling to the highest carbon footprint country in a wholly developed city that has benefitted from all that the speakers are trying to reduce. China and the rest of the developing world are frankly trying to model us and the whole engine of it is economic. The developing countries will have no part of the fact that the U.S. got where they are by a huge carbon footprint and now they cannot do the same because of environmental concerns they see it as another U.S. hegemony play and they will have no part of it, whether they say they will or not. Its rich. So while I sit on the curb and clap as all the leaders fly into NYC to eat sushi and save the world, I also sit bemused and a little sad as well. Its contradiction. But Its also understandable in using climate change as an opportunity to get together and talk about reducing emissions, networking, and other topics, but the caveat here is that the planet really is in big trouble. Its the contradictory nature of the human condition, the best drama around.

  • Paulie777

    Climate, scientists, politicians and developing countries bring out so much of the contradictory nature of humans that it is quite enriching to take and enjoy a big gulp of this folly. The whole climate summit comes with travel, good food, prestige, importance, but its all contradiction and absurdity. The participants are traveling to the highest carbon footprint country in a wholly developed city that has benefitted from all that the speakers are trying to reduce. China and the rest of the developing world are frankly trying to model us and the whole engine of it is economic. The developing countries will have no part of the fact that the U.S. got where they are by a huge carbon footprint and now they cannot do the same because of environmental concerns they see it as another U.S. hegemony play and they will have no part of it, whether they say they will or not. Its rich. So while I sit on the curb and clap as all the leaders fly into NYC to eat sushi and save the world, I also sit bemused and a little sad as well. Its contradiction.

  • UCannotStopMe

    I think it is concerning that people like poster “Paulie777” here indicate their level of “this is what I’m prepared to do about it”=NOT DO ABOUT IT by stringing together a bunch of words that can be summarized by “I’ll chip in my sardonic evaluation by referring to the global ‘mess of things’ that humans have done so as to ‘sagely’ indicate that we have a lot more to worry about than CO2.”

    Way to contribute nothing, Paulie. Excellent job of wasting other people’s time with your nonsensical hot air–matter of fact I suppose your best contribution here is being in print rather than using your mouth more properly. With the brilliant contributions of many more morons (yes, it’s actually the correct term–“person who shows bad judgment” which you have here) like you, we won’t need to worry about greenhouse gases at all–the atmospheric hot air will rise above what is humanly tolerable faster than CO2 or methane could ever do that job.

    I don’t have better words for the vitriole I feel for people who have your special brand of sneerish bystander, though I will say that it’s nice that you self-identify as a cretin. In a perfect world it would make it easier for human beings to be rid of you.

  • Paulie777

    This is just the beginning, in a few decades this will be a small increase. Somewhere in the next 20 yrs will be the “human die-off” event. Times are a changing, people.