Average Carbon Dioxide Levels Increasing Faster Than Ever, NOAA Says

The average rate of carbon dioxide increase is faster than ever and in-air levels are 50 percent higher from when the industrial age commenced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday.

The NOAA reported the average carbon dioxide level in May clocked in at 419.13 parts per million. NOAA climate scientist Pieter Tans said this was a 1.82 parts per million increase from May 2020 and 50 percent higher than the 280 parts per million level from before the industrial age.

Carbon dioxide levels are at their highest during the month of May when Northern Hemisphere greenery hasn't yet bloomed and absorbed some of the gas, the Associated Press reported. However, the volume of carbon dioxide consumed by plants is always eclipsed by increasing carbon dioxide emissions year after year from burning fossil fuels, transportation and electricity.

Natalie Mahowald, a Cornell University climate scientist, said the 50 percent increase of in-air carbon levels is "setting a new benchmark and not in a good way."

"If we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we need to work much harder to cut carbon dioxide emissions and right away," she said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Mauna Loa Observatory
This 2019 photo provided by NOAA shows the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, high atop Hawaii's largest mountain in order to sample well-mixed background air free of local pollution. Heat-trapping carbon dioxide levels in the air peaked in May 2021, in amounts nearly 50 percent higher than when the industrial age began and they are growing at a record fast rate, scientists reported on June 7. Susan Cobb/NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory/AP Photo

Climate change does more than increase temperatures. It makes extreme weather—storms, wildfires, floods and droughts—worse and more frequent and causes oceans to rise and get more acidic, studies show. There are also health effects, including heat deaths and increased pollen. In 2015, countries signed the Paris agreement to try to keep climate change to below what's considered dangerous levels.

The one-year jump in carbon dioxide was not a record, mainly because of a La Nina weather pattern, when parts of the Pacific temporarily cool, said Scripps Institution of Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling. Keeling's father started the monitoring of carbon dioxide on top of the Hawaiian mountain Mauna Loa in 1958, and he has continued the work of charting the now famous Keeling Curve.

Scripps, which calculates the numbers slightly differently based on time and averaging, said the peak in May was 418.9.

Also, pandemic lockdowns slowed transportation, travel and other activity by about 7 percent, earlier studies show. But that was too small to make a significant difference. Carbon dioxide can stay in the air for 1,000 years or more, so year-to-year changes in emissions don't register much.

The 10-year average rate of increase also set a record, now up to 2.4 parts per million per year.

"Carbon dioxide going up in a few decades like that is extremely unusual," Tans said. "For example, when the Earth climbed out of the last ice age, carbon dioxide increased by about 80 parts per million and it took the Earth system, the natural system, 6,000 years. We have a much larger increase in the last few decades."

By comparison, it has taken only 42 years, from 1979 to 2021, to increase carbon dioxide by that same amount.

"The world is approaching the point where exceeding the Paris targets and entering a climate danger zone becomes almost inevitable," said Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, who wasn't part of the research.

Germany Climate Change
German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze gives a press conference about the climate protection act in Berlin, on May 12. The German government approved a new law setting more ambitious targets to reduce CO2 emissions, after the country's top court declared a flagship climate law "insufficient." Annegret Hilse/AFP via Getty Images