Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels Rose At Record Clip For 2nd Straight Year In 2016

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Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (as measured by NOAA at the Mauna Loa Baseline Atmospheric Observatory) rose at a rate of 3 parts per million for the second straight year in a row in 2016, NOAA has revealed.

That brought atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (the average for 2016) up to 405.1 parts per million — up from around 280 parts per million in the year 1760 or so, before the start of the Industrial Revolution. (February 2017 saw levels of 406.42 parts per million.)

This ~6 parts per million rise in just 2 years is, unsurprisingly, unprecedented in the observatory’s 59-year record. Also worth noting is that 2016 represented the 5th consecutive year that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose by 2 parts per million or more.

“The rate of CO2 growth over the last decade is 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last Ice Age. This is a real shock to the atmosphere,” commented Pieter Tans, the lead researcher at NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network.

One of the reasons that I’m writing about this right now is that I recently again heard the claim that carbon emissions are “decoupling” from economic activity — supposedly supported by the IEA’s claim that global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were flat for the third straight year (in 2016), despite growing “economic activity.”

Even presuming that reported emissions figures around the world aren’t fraudulent (which is a lot to ask), the figures don’t (to my eyes) suggest that the foundation that industrial civilization is dependent upon is notably less tied to carbon dioxide emissions, but rather that accounting fraud and asset price inflation is now functioning as a substitute in many places for actual “growth.”

While the move away from coal and towards natural gas seen in some places may have helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to some degree or other, and the increasing (but still, to my eyes, too slow) growth of renewable energy adoption is doing the same … this doesn’t represent a “decoupling.” Rather, it’s a slight reduction in correlation. Industrial civilization is as dependent as ever on fossil fuels — for mass-scale agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, etc. (Even the production of the solar panels on your roof is heavily reliant upon fossil fuels for the refining of the silicon, the mining of various materials, etc.)

If there has been a large change to overall global carbon emissions occurring in recent years, it isn’t because of a magical “decoupling” but rather because a greater portion of “economic activity” now doesn’t relate to the actual physical world — and is thus completely imaginary and prone to vanishing into thin air, while still being based on top of actual natural resource use and exploitation.

For the most part, anyway. Widespread use of renewables could notably reduce carbon dioxide emissions levels, and natural gas growth might as well (presuming cheap-to-extract natural gas existed in vast quantities and leakage throughout the system wasn’t horrible). Though, the emissions problems relating to the transportation, shipping, ore-refining, and agricultural sectors would still need to be solved. It should be emphasized here, however, that while official emissions figures for natural gas use are fairly low, the extraction industry itself seems to be responsible for much higher methane emissions/flaring than is publicly acknowledged.

To be extra clear on this all: If carbon dioxide emissions have truly remained flat the last few years, then why are atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rising at ever faster rates every year? Positive feedback loops (permafrost methane emissions, higher rates of forest fires, soil carbon loss, etc.) have already kicked in more than supposed and/or official emissions figures are having less and less to do with actual emissions levels every year.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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