Carbon Dioxide Levels Higher Than They’ve Been At Any Point In Last 3.6 Million Years

Emily Brown


Carbon Dioxide Levels Higher Than They've Been At Any Point In Last 3.6 Million YearsPexels/PA

With the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere continuing to rise in 2020, levels are at their highest point in the last 3.6 million years. 

Both CO2 and methane levels increased last year, with CO2 reaching new heights despite a 7% reduction in expected global emissions, which was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to calculations released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the global average of atmospheric CO2 reached 412.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2020, marking a rise of 2.6ppm from 2019 and the fifth-largest increase since the organisation began measuring atmospheric CO2 levels 63 years ago.

In a statement released on Wednesday, April 7, the NOAA stated the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is ‘comparable to where it was during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period around 3.6 million years ago’.

During that time, the organisation said, the sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7°F higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic.

If the pandemic had not resulted in the 7% reduction, Pieter Tans, the senior scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, estimates that 2020 would have been a record-breaking year for CO2 emissions.

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Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are released through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. In doing this, humans have caused the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere to rise to levels that cannot be explained by natural causes, USA Today reports.

In the last two decades, the world’s temperature has risen about two-thirds of a degree.

Colm Sweeney, of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, commented: ‘Human activity is driving climate change. If we want to mitigate the worst impacts, it’s going to take a deliberate focus on reducing fossil fuels emissions to near zero – and even then we’ll need to look for ways to further remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.’


When it comes to methane, the NOAA’s analysis found 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’.

NOAA research chemist Ed Dlugokencky has said that while increased fossil fuel emissions ‘may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels, reducing fossil methane emissions are an important step toward mitigating climate change’.

The organisation has noted its report is preliminary, and the final calculation of levels is typically slightly lower than preliminary numbers. However, even taking into account the adjustments, ‘the 2020 increase is likely to remain one of the largest in the entire record,’ the NOAA said.

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Topics: Science, carbon dioxide, Climate Change, Global Warming, Now


NOAA and 1 other
  1. NOAA

    Despite pandemic shutdowns, carbon dioxide and methane surged in 2020

  2. USA Today

    COVID-19 hasn't slowed global warming: Earth's carbon dioxide levels highest in over 3 million years, NOAA says

Emily Brown
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