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CO2 Concentration Is Higher Than Ever in Human History

The amount of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere already constitutes a climate emergency, and it’s worsening each year.

The amount of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere already constitutes a climate emergency, and it's worsening each year.

Part of the Series

For the first time in human history, on May 13, Earth’s concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 415 parts per million ( ppm). Before the 19th century’s industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration was at about 280 ppm.

Meteorologist and Grist staff writer Eric Holthaus tweeted the following shocking data, derived from historical records, about global atmospheric CO2 levels:

270 → 280 ppm: ~5000 yrs

280 → 290: ~100

290 → 300: ~40

300 → 310: ~30

310 → 320: ~23

320 → 330: 12

330 → 340: 8

340 → 350: 6

350 → 360: 7

360 → 370: 6

370 → 380: 5

380 → 390: 5

390 → 400: 5

400 → 410: 4

410 → 415.7: 2

The data reveals the intensity of acceleration of the amount of CO2 that human activity is adding to Earth’s already overburdened atmosphere.

Visualizing the Meteoric Rise of CO2

Neil Kaye, a climate data scientist with the U.K.’s meteorological office, generated a stunning graphic allowing people to see what percentage of global fossil fuel emissions have occurred in their lifetimes.

You can view the graphic here. If you are 40 years old, 65 percent of all global fossil fuel emissions have been released in your lifetime, and if you are 85 years of age, the amount is over 90 percent.

Kaye produced another stunning graphic demonstrating the global acceleration of atmospheric CO2 content, which can be viewed here.

An animation produced by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences shows how the current dramatic rise of CO2 in the atmosphere is unparalleled in Earth’s history dating back hundreds of thousands of years, based on ice-core data.

And there are, unfortunately, no signs of this acceleration abating.

Global carbon emissions jumped to an all-time high in 2018, due primarily to the increasing use of coal and automobiles.

“Almost all countries are contributing to the rise,” The Guardian reported of the crisis, “with emissions in China up 4.7 percent, in the US by 2.5 percent and in India by 6.3 percent in 2018.”

All of this data makes clear that there is an enormous amount of global warming already baked into the system, given that it takes 10 years for us to feel the warming from CO2 after it is introduced into the atmosphere.

In the last decade, more CO2 emissions have been released into the atmosphere than any other decade in history. This means that, in another decade, higher temperatures and intensifying impacts from human-caused climate disruption are virtually guaranteed.

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