400PPM Carbon Dioxide and no turning back

As of this September, we will never see CO2 levels drop below 400 parts per million. In a world where many won’t believe, or simply choose to ignore, the existence of climate change; we have reached a point considered by some scientists to be a particularly dark and damning milestone.

The number – 400ppm – is largely symbolic, reflecting a more optimistic goal and desire to curb emissions than a particular point which signals dramatic change to our everyday lives. This, in itself, is a problem. There is and will be no decisive moment where suddenly climate change appears in one swift dramatic movement. The changes are showing themselves gradually and they are all the more dangerous because of that.

The lowest annual levels usually occur in late September, this reading above 400ppm for the first time. This low point is the result of trees and plants taking in large amounts of carbon dioxide during the summer months. As the northern hemisphere, for which the readings are concerned, reaches autumn, levels rise again due to vegetation decomposing and releasing its stored carbon dioxide.

Ralph Keeling, a scientist responsible for the Scripps Institute for Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, wrote “Is it possible that October 2016 will yield a lower monthly value than September and dip below 400 ppm? Almost impossible. Brief excursions towards lower values are still possible but it already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year – or ever again for the indefinite future.”

Why will we never see levels lower than this ever again? Carbon dioxide levels have been rising ever since the industrial revolution and once it is in the atmosphere, it takes over a decade to dissipate. Even if we were to do the impossible and stop all carbon emissions overnight, the current level would remain the same for years.

In light of this, the newly reached milestone was always destined to arrive one day but it adds new pressure to try and tackle our carbon emissions.

In terms of the rising temperature, which is in part aggravated by the rising CO2 emissions, we are practically at the 1.50C temperature threshold. A 20C rise is generally recognised to be the highest possible change the planet can bear before we see completely unmanageable change. Even at that temperature, small islands and very flat coastal regions will be wiped off the map by rising water levels.

Perhaps most worryingly, attempts to address the problem simply aren’t enough. Even if every single vehicle and factory were to stop; if the meat industry (contributing between 20-50% to emissions) were to disappear – the best we could see is no rise in emissions. We would not see the level fall for a decade.

Our emissions are not going to stop. They can however be reduced in theory, as environmentalists and other scientists have been saying now for decades without much luck.  The individual should for example strive to use their car less and eat less meat. Governments should pursue strong environmental policies. Companies should play a role in conducting work environmentally.

In practice however, a utopian hope that such activities would happen is just that – lost hope. Most companies will always focus profits over environmentally friendliness. Governments are pressured by the fear of underperformance on targets and voting tendencies. The individual is largely powerless in the grand scale of the world’s population, where the care of an ultra-conscientious bike-commuting, vegan, water-saving, electricity avoiding eco guru will barely leave a scratch on the high carbon levels and the minimal efforts of the majority.

Any attempt at change isn’t helped by those who claim the non-existence of climate change. Take Mr Donald trump for example, who stated on twitter “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” As it happens, his comments are made all the worse by the fact he knows full well the dangers of climate change, after he built flood defences around one of his golf courses due to “erosion and rising sea levels”.

The current apathy and apparent hopelessness aside, there is no excuse for not trying to improve the situation. The fact is our current lifestyles are not sustainable and every one of us has a part to play in turning the damages around as best as possible. Governments and companies must make greater efforts, not soon, not later but now.

We live now in a 400ppm CO2 world and that level is rising yearly. It is clear that, even as we improve our efforts to address rising carbon emissions there can be no change, other than change for the worse unless drastic action is taken.


Tim Van Gardingen

(Image courtesy of Louis Vest)

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