Greenhouse Gas Levels Throw Us Into a New Climate Era

Greenhouse Gas Levels Throw Us Into a New Climate Era


The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the symbolic and significant milestone of 400 parts per million for the first time last year. And now in 2016, a new record has been reached, according to the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.


The spike in COwas fuelled by an El Niño event, which started in 2015 and had a strong impact well into 2016. This triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of “sinks” like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2. These sinks currently absorb about half of COemissions. But if they become saturated, it means that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.

So how will this affect Ireland? According to the EPA, our temperatures will rise. Sounds nice! Six of the ten warmest years in Ireland have occurred since 1990. But – there’s downsides. Horrible ones.

Ocean Acidification will have harmful effects on marine organisms and has the potential to disrupt global marine ecosystems. That doesn’t sound like fun. There will be sea level rise, more intense storms and rainfall events (like we need more rain), and increased likelihood of river and coastal flooding, and water shortages in summer in the east. None of this sounds like a whole lot of good craic.

Between 1990 and 2015 there was a 37% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.

“The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations,” said World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not. The real elephant in the room is carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years and in the oceans for even longer. Without tackling COemissions, we can not tackle climate change and keep temperature increases to below 2°C above the pre-industrial era.”

WMO is striving to improve weather and climate services for the renewable energy sector and to support the Green Economy and sustainable development. To optimise the use of solar, wind and hydropower production, new types of weather services are needed.

The Bad Guys

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

The pre-industrial level of about 278 ppm represented a balance between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels has altered the natural balance and in 2015, globally averaged levels were 144% of pre-industrial levels.  In 2015, global annual average concentration of COconcentrations reached 400.0 ppm. The increase of  CO2 from 2014 to 2015 was larger than the previous year and the average over the previous 10 years.

In Equatorial Asia – where there were serious forest fires in Indonesia in August-September 2015 – levels were more than twice as high as the 1997-2015 average.

Methane (CH4)

Approximately 40% of methane is emitted into the atmosphere by natural sources (e.g., wetlands and termites), and about 60% comes from human activities like cattle breeding, rice agriculture, fossil fuel exploitation, landfills and biomass burning. Atmospheric methane reached a new high of about 1845 parts per billion (ppb) in 2015 and is now 256% of the pre-industrial level.

Nitrous oxide (N2O)

It is emitted into the atmosphere from both natural (about 60%) and anthropogenic sources (approximately 40%), including oceans, soil, biomass burning, fertiliser use, and various industrial processes. Its atmospheric concentration in 2015 was about 328 parts per billion. This is 121% of pre-industrial levels. It also plays an important role in the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer which protects us from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.

Other long-lived greenhouse gases

Sulphur hexafluoride is a potent long-lived greenhouse gas. It is produced by the chemical industry, mainly as an electrical insulator in power distribution equipment. Atmospheric levels are about twice the level observed in the mid-1990s.

In all we humans are doing ourselves in. Now… where is Noah with that Ark…

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