Climate progress? Someone forgot to say the atmosphere

The nations of the world are gathering in Egypt this week to begin their fourth decade of global climate meetings. The results for the first three decades – on the only dashboard the climate pays attention to, the atmosphere – have been increasingly dire.

Atmospheric levels of the three main greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – are skyrocketing, out of control. Combined, they cause 90% of global warming.

Here is a climate view of where we are today globally and in Canada.

CO2 accelerates upwards

“The accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere is irreversible on a human scale and will affect the climate for millennia.” — World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

The rapid increase in CO2 in our atmosphere is the main driver of the climate crisis and ocean acidification. Both crises will continue to grow more dangerous until CO2 levels stop rising. This point is called “net-zero” and it is literally the zero line at the bottom of my first chart below.

The vertical gray bars in the graph show increases in CO2 for each of the past 50 years. And the horizontal bars show the average for each decade.

As you can quickly see, increases in CO2 have not fallen to zero as required for a stable and secure climate. Instead, CO2 levels have accelerated upwards, decade after decade.

And note that the most extreme CO2 acceleration has occurred in the last decade. This record increase occurred despite the Paris Agreement and a global pandemic shutdown.

Global meetings on climate began in 1992, with the Rio Summit. Since then, the atmosphere has gained 475 billion tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2). For scale, that’s eight times the weight of all the solid waste humanity has thrown away in those years. That’s the equivalent of every human on Earth throwing away hundreds of handfuls of plastic straws every day for those 30 years.

Not only is CO2 humanity’s greatest waste stream, but it will take the planet over 100,000 years to remove all the extra CO2 we have accumulated in the atmosphere.

That relatively calm, temperate climate that many of us adults may have enjoyed growing up – the one under which human civilization flourished – is now gone. Cooked. What we collectively decide, day by day, is how much more climate misery we are going to make.

Analysis: The nations of the world are in Egypt for their fourth decade of global climate meetings. The results for the first three decades – on the only dashboard the climate pays attention to, the atmosphere – have been increasingly dire.

Methane also on the rise

The second most important driver of climate change is the increase in methane (CH4) in our atmosphere.

Atmospheric methane levels from 1992 to 2021

As my second graph shows, methane has also increased at a record rate. And here too, the last decade has been the most extreme on record.

In fact, more methane has accumulated in the atmosphere in the past decade than in the previous two decades combined.

And, disturbingly, the past two years have seen record highs.

What is causing this dramatic increase in methane? Scientists are still not sure.

According to the latest WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, the most likely driver appears to be an increase in emissions from biological processes, particularly in tropical regions.

Potential sources for this include some that humans control, such as rice paddies and livestock. But there are other potential sources that are beyond human control. One such possibility, the WMO notes, is that “microbial methane production in tropical wetlands is sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation, introducing potential positive climate feedback.” Have we shocked the climate system so much that that dreaded feedback loop kicked in?

Maybe.

Nobody knows.

And, unfortunately for us, the climate doesn’t care where the methane comes from. It just reacts to the amount in the atmosphere. Getting to safety requires “net zero” additions of methane to the atmosphere.

Nitrous oxide also accelerates

Atmospheric N2O levels from 1992 to 2021

The third most important driver of climate change is the increase in nitrous oxide (N2O) in our atmosphere.

My third graph shows that nitrous oxide levels have also increased decade after decade.

And again, as with CO2 and methane, the most extreme increases have occurred over the past decade.

And, as with methane, the past two years have seen record increases.

In this case, scientists have a much better understanding of what is causing the increase in N2O – the increasing use of nitrogen fertilizers around the world.

Now that we’ve seen what’s happening with these three greenhouse gases globally, let’s look at Canadian emissions.

Canadian shows versus our peers

Canada, unfortunately, has the worst climate pollution record among our Group of Seven (G7) peers.

Evolution of greenhouse gases in G7 countries since 1990

G7 members are the largest advanced economies in the world, producing half of the world’s GDP. These are the nations that have the most resources, talent, technology and capacity to implement the climate solutions required.

Here is a brief overview of how Canada compares to our G7 peers for each of the three main greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide

All G7 countries have succeeded in at least reducing their CO2 emissions below 1990 levels, except Canada.

Leading the CO2 reduction pack are our Commonwealth peers, the British. They have almost halved their CO2 emissions. The European Union has collectively reduced its CO2 pollution by a third. Heck, even Americans have been cutting emissions for decades now.

However, Canada still emits much more CO2 than in 1990. And the gap with our G7 peers continues to widen. You can see this clearly in the graph above by looking at trends over the past decade, before the pandemic’s temporary one-year decline in 2020. All other countries have reduced emissions over the past decade. , while Canada still increased ours.

Methane

As Bloomberg News recently reported, every G7 country has also reduced its methane emissions well below 1990 levels, with the exception of Canada. The Americans reduced theirs by 25%; the Germans and the British by 50%.

Canada’s methane emissions are 37% higher.

Nitrous oxide

World Bank data shows that all G7 countries have also reduced their N2O emissions below 1990 levels, with the exception of Canada and the United States.

Canadian emissions are 3% higher. But that understates our challenge. That’s because Canada achieved a huge one-time reduction in nitrous oxide in the late 1990s when the country’s only adipic acid plant shut down. Surprisingly, this obscure plant closure remains the third largest greenhouse gas reduction in Canada so far.

Over the next two decades, however, Canadian N2O emissions increased steadily. This was driven by a doubling of nitrogen fertilizer use. This growing use of nitrogen fertilizers has now reduced Canada’s N2O emissions to 1990 levels. Efforts to halt the rise of this greenhouse gas are now being met with pushback from Canadian farm groups.

Canadian emissions vs climate promises

Canada has been promising to reduce our climate pollution for 34 years. In 1988, the Mulroney government pledged to reduce Canadian emissions by 20% by 2005. Instead, Canada increased its emissions by 25%.

History of Canada's climate goals.

As a result, the task facing Canadians has become greater and greater while the time required to accomplish it has steadily diminished. This has forced Canadian politicians from all political walks of life to commit to increasingly demanding climate goals.

For example, our early targets—such as the Chrétien government’s Kyoto target and the Harper government’s Copenhagen target—required annual reductions of about seven MtCO2 per year.

Later goals – like the Harper government’s Paris Accord and the 2050 goals – required twice as much reduction each year.

And then, after years of rising emissions, Canada’s latest goals — the Trudeau government’s “net zero” and enhanced Paris targets — now call for four times the reduction per year of our first goals.

And yet, we are still not reducing our emissions as needed to stabilize the climate. Continuing to climb higher and higher on the climate cliff as the climate storm clouds grow ever more ominous and threatening is not going to end well for Canadians. Our window to turn around and start descending to safety closes quickly.

The COPs of fossil fuels

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the world climate conference – officially known as the 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27 – is now openly sponsored by fossil fuel companies. At last year’s COP 26 in Scotland, the fossil fuel industry sent 500 delegates – more than from any country.

With foxes swarming the henhouse and the three major greenhouse gases accelerating unchecked, it’s no wonder younger generations have taken to the streets, sports stadiums and art galleries protesting. They search for a way to save themselves from the increasingly dystopian climatic future the adults are locking them into. Like David Attenborough Put the: “We let the younger generation down, and they know it, and they’re angry.”

In his COP 27 opening speech on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was candid about the reckless path we are heading down: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator…Our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible…We are in the fight of our lives and we let’s lose.”

It is high time for Canadians to join the fight, deliver on our climate promises, and quickly reduce our oversized climate pollution.

About Lucille Thompson

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