New record high CO2 pollution levels must fire up progress at global climate talks

Ilario D'Amato
Reading time: 4 minutes
9 September 2014

LONDON: Last year greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere reached a new high, driven by a record increase of CO2, according to new data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The just released bulletin from the WMO shows in 2013, atmospheric CO2 levels were 0.74% higher than the previous year reaching 142% of pre-industrial levels, “primarily because of emissions from combustion of fossil fuels and cement production”.

The bulletin from the UN agency also shows that average increase in atmospheric CO2 in the previous decade corresponds to human-caused emissions, with almost 45% of CO2 from human activity, and the remaining half absorbed by the oceans and the terrestrial biosphere.

Historically around half of human-caused pollution is absorbed, which limits global temperature rise. But this year less CO2 was removed, which will cause alarm bells to ring for scientists and governments around the world, because the increased carbon left in the atmosphere could accelerate warming. 

Globally average CO2 in 2013 was 396 parts per million (ppm), which was an increase in global annual mean CO2 of 2.9 ppm. To better understand the figure, the average growth rate for the 1990s was almost half, about 1.5 ppm, while in the past decade was about 2.1 ppm.

WMO gas bulletin

Image courtesy of World Meteorological Organization, from “WMO greenhouse gas bulletin” n. 10 - September 9, 2014

However, the bulletin points out that “it is too early to say which factors are responsible for this larger-than average increase”. According to the scientists, the changes could result from small changes in fluxes between the atmosphere and terrestrial biosphere.

There is no doubt though, around the action that must urgently be taken. “We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board,” says Michel Jarraud, WMO Secretary-General. “We have the knowledge and the tools for action to try keep temperature increases within 2°C. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse”.

The 2°C limit is also back in the news because of a PwC report released yesterday, which shows how the world is not doing enough to achieve this goal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year indicated that if we want the world to warm no more than 2°C - in order to avoid dangerous climate changes - then cumulative fossil fuel CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2100 need to be no more than 270 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

But current total annual energy-related emissions are just over 30 billion tons and still rising, with a “carbon ‘burn rate’ that would deplete the carbon budget for the entire century within the next 20 years,” according to the IPCC. To avoid this, the global economy would need to cut its carbon intensity by 6.2% a year, every year from now to 2100, this is more than five times its current rate.

However, there are other numbers that indicate we can resolve the issue. Last year growth in absolute emissions has only been 1.8% - the slowest rate of emissions growth since 2008-2009, when carbon emissions fell as a result of the global recession.

At the same time reduction in carbon intensity stands at 1.2%, far more than the 0.8% of the 2012, marking the highest figure since 2008.


Image courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers, from the report “Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 - Two degrees of separation: ambition and reality”.

This is promising, but it’s still not enough. As shown in the graph above, the reduction of 1.2% is still only one fifth of the decarbonization rate required.

As the WMO report indicates, the global economy must cut its carbon intensity. And with the help of political and economic leaders who must take bold actions against climate change during Climate Week NYC and the UN Climate Summit ahead of global climate talks in Lima and Paris, progress in curbing emissions and tackling climate change seems possible. 

By Ilario D'Amato

For a full list of Climate Week NYC events, please visit and follow the conversation on Twitter using #CWNYC.

You can also see our Climate Week NYC media resources for press releases, contacts and more info.

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