The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record high in 2018, according to new data put out Monday by the World Meteorological Organization, a revelation that casts a dim light on Canada’s current methods in battling the climate crisis.
Even more alarming, data from the United Nations-affiliated organization shows there is no sign of a slowdown in the rate of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, and that for some types, the concentration is increasing faster than ever.
WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement that the continued increase in greenhouse gases is happening “despite all the commitments” under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
“We need to translate the commitments into action and increase the level of ambition for the sake of the future welfare of the mankind,” he said.
Speaking to CTV News, WMO’s Oksana Tarasova said that their observations of the levels of greenhouse gases in 2018 showed that “carbon dioxide increased with a rate which is quite close to the 10 years average, though methane — which is the second most important … greenhouse gas – increased with a higher rate than within (the) last 10 years.”
Nitrous oxide, which she explained was the third most damaging greenhouse gas, “increased even faster than we’ve seen ever in this whole history of observations.”
CO2 is responsible for around two-thirds of the Earth’s warming. Methane is responsible for 17 per cent of warming, according to WMO, while nitrous oxide causes around 6 per cent. The last time CO2 levels were this high was “3-5 million years ago,” Taalas said in the WMO statement.
“This continuing long-term trend means that future generations will be confronted with increasingly severe impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, more extreme weather, water stress, sea level rise and disruption to marine and land ecosystems,” the statement reads.
This data comes only two weeks after Climate Transparency released a detailed analysis of which G20 countries are on track to meet their greenhouse-gas emissions targets — and Canada was one of the worst performers, assessed as unlikely to come near its targets.
Canadians have marched, chanted and demonstrated across the country, asking for more action on the part of the government to slow down the rate of devastating climate change, the effects of which we are already seeing. But so far, the policies have not followed.
The Canadian federal government has come under fire from climate activists and concerned citizens for the decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018 and fund its expansion, even while promising to slash greenhouse-gas emissions.
They have claimed that the pipeline will yield another $500 million in corporate tax revenue to be spent on fighting climate change, but it’s still unclear where the figure came from and what is truly meant by it in terms of a climate plan.
The same day that the WMO report came out, Matthew Barnes, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Bill Morneau, said in an email that the $500 million figure was a “Finance Canada estimate based on the additional corporate tax revenue that the federal government could receive from the successful completion and operation of TMX.”
However, economist Robyn Allan told The Canadian Press the figure does not hold up to scrutiny.
“If they can’t tell you how it was derived it really begs the question if there is any substance to it at all,” she said.
The average amount of greenhouse-gas emissions per capita among G20 countries is 7.5 tonnes. Canada’s emissions per capita are at 18.9 tonnes, according to Climate Transparency. The province with the highest emissions in the country is Alberta, which recently repealed the previous provincial NDP government’s carbon tax.
Although Canada is a frontrunner among the G20 for goals to eliminate coal power, and the Climate Transparency report praised the federal Liberals’ decision to introduce a national price on carbon, we are leagues behind many other nations, with four times the G20 average for emissions per person from transportation, and more than twice the average emissions from buildings.
“Current trends in the concentration of greenhouse gases, and especially the increasing growth rate, actually show us that (globally) we are not following our commitments,” Tarasova said.
She added that in the new report from WMO, they looked at not only the levels of CO2, but also how “the composition of carbon dioxide is changing.”
This helps them identify what is causing the increase in CO2. There are three distinct isotopes of carbon found in natural systems, according to the WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, and the relative proportion of each one in different carbon reservoirs can show the source.
Tarasova said that when it comes to the new data on CO2, the CO2’s “isotopic composition changes in a way that indicates more and more presence of the fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere.”
Put simply, this means that it is clear that human use of fossil fuels is driving the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, and thus the warming of the planet.
This follows the overwhelming scientific consensus delivered earlier this month that the Earth is indeed facing a climate emergency. Over 11,000 scientists, including 409 from Canada, signed a letter pleading for world leaders to take the crisis seriously, for the wealthy to change their habits and for those in denial to accept that global warming is human driven.
“This upward trajectory (of greenhouse gas levels) brings us to territory which we don’t want to be,” Tarasova said.
“We understand very clearly that if we want to reach Paris agreement goals, we have to act very fast, we have to reduce emissions by 45 per cent if we wanted to meet (the) 1.5 degree target, and we have only 10 years to do so.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada will commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
He also reiterated a promise this fall that a federal Liberal government will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — and added that they are now aiming to exceed that goal.
But Environment and Climate Change Canada publishes regular reports tracking Canada’s progress on such goals. In December of 2018, they projected that even when you take into account environmental policies that aren’t yet active, Canada’s total emissions by 2030 are only on track to be 19 per cent below 2005 levels.
Despite the dismal news regarding 2018’s greenhouse gas levels, WMO’s Secretary-General tried to highlight the positive side.
“The visibility of these issues is the highest (it has) ever been,” he told reporters in Geneva. “Personally, I am more hopeful than I used to be 10 years ago but of course we have to speed up the process.”