Calls for ‘brave and bold’ leadership as CO2 levels hit record high

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 419 parts per million (ppm) in May - the highest level since accurate measurements began - prompting calls from green groups for “brave and bold” leadership and cooperation across sectors.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 419 parts per million in May. Photograph: Eric Yang/Getty Images Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere hit 419 parts per million in May. Photograph: Eric Yang/Getty Images

The findings come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory said: “We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year.

“That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn, and release into the atmosphere as CO2 - year after year.”

The data released shows that while the annual increase of CO2 seen this May of 1.8ppm was slightly less than previous years, CO2 measurements for the first five months of 2021 at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii showed a 2.3ppm increase over the same five months of 2020 - close to the average annual increase from 2010 to 2019. 

It means there has been no discernible drop in CO2 measurements despite slowdowns in air travel and industry caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Caterina Brandmayr, head of climate policy at the Green Alliance told ENDS that the new data is a “frightening reminder that we cannot afford to delay action to cut emissions any longer." 

She continued: “The good thing is that we have most of the tools needed to do so. Making sure those solutions are scaled up will not only help us tackle climate change, but also help futureproof UK businesses and benefit people [...] It’s now time for the prime minister and the chancellor to deliver on their promise of a green industrial revolution and put the country on track for net zero emission.”

Helen Clarkson, chief executive of non-profit the Climate Group, agreed that the data made for sober reading: “What we desperately need now is brave and bold leadership from businesses and governments alike to be in with even the slightest chance of halving emissions by 2030.

“Every business decision made in the next few years needs to be informed by that reality – every investment, every innovation, every target. We’ve run out of time for business as usual: we need to see transformation rapidly, and at scale. We call it the Climate Decade because every decision needs to have the climate at the centre."

Clarkson added: “We’ve seen that when circumstances dictate, we are capable of change that previously seemed culturally impossible. And there’s no better time to change than when you’ve already got to redefine the ‘new normal’.”

Although data analysed by Nature showed that there was a sharp drop in carbon emissions at the start of the 2020 pandemic, carbon continued to be emitted into the atmosphere through forest fires. A separate NOAA report to the one released on Monday, says that fires are producing CO2 “at perhaps a similar rate as the modest lowering of emissions resulting from the pandemic."

Commenting on the NOAA data, Richard Rugg, managing director of programmes and innovation at the non-profit Carbon Trust said whilst they were proud of the work they’ve done with clients to reduce carbon emissions, they “also need to see a focus on implementation to ensure the many net zero targets result in tangible action on emissions.   

“This will require cooperation within and across sectors, some of which we are already seeing and we are helping to facilitate in many areas.”

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