“If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date,” Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA, said

By Morgan Smith
June 08, 2021 03:27 PM
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A placard reading 'Stop CO2' is seen during 'Fridays for future' demonstration, a worldwide climate strike
Credit: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty

Despite many people staying indoors and off the roads for the past year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows carbon dioxide levels have soared to a record high, alarming many scientists that the climate-change crisis is quickly getting worse.  

The research, published Monday by a group of scientists from NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, measured carbon dioxide levels, the chief human-caused greenhouse gas, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii in May, when carbon levels in the air peak. 

Atmospheric carbon dioxide saw a monthly average of 419 parts per million, the highest level since measurements began 63 years ago, according to their analysis.

Carbon dioxide levels have not been this high in 4 million years, a news release announcing the findings noted. 

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

He continued: "If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date."

Carbon dioxide pollution is generated by a number of sources including burning carbon-based fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) for transportation, electricity, cement manufacturing, deforestation, agriculture and other practices, according to NOAA. 

These gases trap outgoing heat from the Earth's surface that would otherwise escape into space, causing the planet's temperature to spike.

"The ultimate control knob on atmospheric CO2 is fossil-fuel emissions," Ralph Keeling, a geochemist who runs the Scripps program at Mauna Loa, said in a news release. "But we still have a long way to go to halt the rise … we ultimately need cuts that are much larger and sustained longer than the COVID-related shutdowns of 2020."

Climate change has immediate, devastating impacts on the environment, causing extreme weather events, poorer air quality, an increase in diseases and killing off entire animal species, NOAA said.

In February, the United States rejoined the Paris climate agreement, an international treaty which aims to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees C.

Tans, however, hopes countries consider adopting other solutions to global warming, such as solar energy and wind power, as both energy sources are cheaper than fossil fuels and "work at the scales that are required," he added in the news release. 

"We're running out of time," Tans said in an interview with the Washington Post. "The longer we wait, the harder it gets."