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CO2 Levels Remain High Despite Pandemic-Related Economic Slowdowns

Updated: Jun 26, 2021

Despite common belief, the environmental impact in the setting of the COVID-19 related economic slowdown has not significantly stalled global warming. In fact, federal scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced this past April that carbon dioxide and methane emissions have continued to rise, reaching their highest levels in 3.6 million years.


This is especially shocking after the Earth System Science Data’s 2020 global carbon budget estimates that the economic recession from COVID-19 reduced CO2 emissions by approximately 7 percent. This highlights how significant human economic activity contributes to carbon emissions, and that without the recession, the 2020 increase would be the highest point ever recorded. In the same report, the NOAA showcased that the global surface average for C02 was 412.5 ppm in 2020 and increased by 2.6 ppm during the year. This increase in rate was the fifth highest global rate in NOAA’s 63 year record.


Two of the most significant anthropogenic greenhouse gases that are rising include carbon dioxide and methane. These greenhouse gases absorb and radiate heat that contributes to the overall warming of the Earth. What makes these gases so powerful is their gradual release of the heat they absorb over a long period of time.


CO2 is one of the best-known and important greenhouse gases due to its ability to absorb less heat per molecule than other gases, such as methane. CO2 is more prevalent in the atmosphere and lasts much longer. According to the NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Colorado, “increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are responsible for about two-thirds of the total energy imbalance that is causing Earth's temperature to rise.”


In addition to CO2, methane is another important driver to global warming that the NOAA found to be increasing. Their preliminary analysis showed the annual increase in atmospheric methane for 2020 was 14.7 parts per billion (ppb), which is the largest annual increase recorded since systematic measurements began in 1983. CO2 is roughly eight times more abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere, but methane is more effective at raising the atmosphere’s temperature. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that “methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere” and that “at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.”


At the federal level, changes are on the horizon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Biden administration instituted an executive order to reinstate federal methane regulations. Lawmakers have also introduced joint resolutions to restore methane pollution protection and allow the EPA to create new standards that will advance its climate and environmental justice goals.


The White House is taking leadership in taking action and you can too. Read more about what you can do to reduce greenhouse gases here: https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/climate-solutions/reduce-greenhouse-gases



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