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Despite Recession, Atmospheric CO2 Levels Accelerated In 2008

February 25, 2009

The increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) slightly accelerated in 2008, according to a Reuters report citing scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The new figures may diminish optimism that the reduction in industrial output and carbon emissions that began last year will temporarily dampen climate change.

Some analysts had hoped the global recession would give the world time to reverse the impact of atmospheric CO2 on the climate.

But the new NOAA data shows that may not be the case.  

“For us to see (the impact) in the atmosphere it would take a large drop in emissions, but it hasn’t happened yet and that’s very clear from this data,” Thomas Conway, a NOAA climate scientist who helped compile the new data, told Reuters.

“If the change in emissions is only a few percent we’re not going to see that in the atmosphere,” Conway said

Natural processes, such as forests and oceans that mop up carbon dioxide, can mask small, short-term changes in manmade carbon emissions, he said.

Analysts estimate that greenhouse gas emissions from developed nations will fall about 2 percent this year due to the recession. However, a depression or deeper slump could result in even greater reductions. In China, which analysts say is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon, emissions are expected to continue to rise.

Last year, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached a global average of 384.9 parts per million (ppm), a 2.2 ppm increase over 2007. That compares with a previous annual increase of 1.8 ppm, according to the NOAA data.

When compared with the 1980s and 1990s, annual increases during the past decade have been greater, Conway added, due mostly to increases in emissions.

The NOAA data may also support an unproven theory that oceans, which absorb a significant part of excess carbon emissions, were becoming saturated.

“There is some evidence that a sink in the southern (Antarctic) ocean is not keeping up … has been saturated,” he said.

But most scientists believe increasing amounts of worldwide carbon emissions are stoking global warming. 

The European Union has set a 2 degrees centigrade warming above pre-industrial levels as a dangerous threshold for climate change.

“Levels of CO2 at 385 ppm are already approaching a level which in the long-term we have to stay below to have a likely chance of staying below 2 degrees,” Malte Meinshausen, a climate scientist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute, told Reuters.

However, he said it was possible for atmospheric carbon levels to peak and then fall again if people adopted low-carbon energy sources and technologies that remove carbon dioxide out of the air by burying it underground.

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