World carbon dioxide levels jump 2.3 ppm in 2008 to highest in 650,000 — if not 20 million — years

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NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division reports that global concentrations of the primary heat-trapping greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, jumped 2.28 ppm in 2008.


A study in Science from the Global Carbon Project (see “More on soaring carbon concentrations“) noted:

The present concentration is the highest during the last 650,000 years and probably during the last 20 million years.

Worse, the rate of growth of CO2 concentrations this decade is 2.1 ppm a year — 40% higher than the rate from the 1990s. At the same time that CO2 emissions are soaring, CO2 sinks are saturating (see “The ocean is absorbing less carbon dioxide“).

This post is based on preliminary data for 2008 from NOAA’s network of air sampling sites. Reuters has a story based on sampling off northern Norway, which wins the prize for the most confused climate article of the year, starting with the headline:

CO2 hits new peaks, no sign global crisis causing dip

OSLO (Reuters) – Atmospheric levels of the main greenhouse gas are hitting new highs, with no sign yet that the world economic downturn is curbing industrial emissions, a leading scientist said on Thursday.

No, no, a thousand times no.

Sure the vast majority of people are confused about the difference between carbon dioxide levels/ concentrations and annual emissions (see “MIT Part 2: Tackling the biggest source of climate confusion“), but Alister Doyle, Reuters Environment Correspondent (and his editor Andrew Roche)? Say it ain’t so.

If the media doesn’t understand this, how will the public ever?

There isn’t a global economic downturn big enough to stop the growth of carbon dioxide concentrations. Emissions would have to drop more than 60% for that to happen, not the piddling one or two percent this downturn might cause.

It’s the bathtub, stupid! The (net) emissions are the rate of flow of CO2 in (minus the amount taken up by the ocean and land sinks). Concentrations are like the level of water in the tub — and they don’t drop easily, certainly not from a tiny drop in the rate of flow in. It appears from the story that it may not just be the Reuters reporter who is confused:

“The rise is in line with the long-term trend,” Kim Holmen, research director at the Norwegian Polar Institute, said of the measurements taken by a Stockholm University project on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard off north Norway.

Levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from human activities, rose to 392 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere in Svalbard in December, a rise of 2-3 ppm from the same time a year earlier, he told Reuters.

Carbon dioxide concentrations are likely to have risen further in 2009, he said.


Let’s hope that was a reporter screw up. Let’s hope the research director at the Norwegian Polar Institute doesn’t think a rise in CO2 levels in 2009 is “likely.” It is about as much a certainty as anything is in science or life in general — yes, some undetected meteoroid could hit the planet and wipe out most life in the next month or two, but short of that, concentrations are gonna keep rising for a long, long time.

To paraphrase Jon Stewart: Oh, Reuters, why do you mock me?


30 Responses to World carbon dioxide levels jump 2.3 ppm in 2008 to highest in 650,000 — if not 20 million — years

  1. Too many reporters refuse to accept that global warming is unfolding according to the laws of physics. Global warming cares nothing of the US economy. An economic depression means nothing to a melting ice cap.

    Humans just happen to run the economy in a global environment. Other than the fact they both use various numerical maths to describe them they have very little in common.

    Oh yeah, and both are unstable.

  2. paulm says:

    Could this be another bubble ?

  3. paulm says:

    Here come the engineers…the pragmatic lot…

    Climate Change: Adapting to the Inevitable
    Institution of Mechanical Engineers

    The report’s point of departure is that we are
    unlikely to be far more successful at curbing our
    CO emissions in the near future than we have
    been over the past decade or so. And even with
    vigorous mitigation effort, we will continue to
    use fossil fuel reserves until they are exhausted.

    However by then, atmospheric CO levels may
    have risen to about 1700ppmv compared to an
    average of 383ppmv today.

  4. Lewis says:

    The media seems to think there are two sides to empirical scientific truth and falls all over themselves to be balanced. The media no longer is willing if able to differentiate fact from opinion.

  5. Greg N says:

    1,700 ppm!

    Is that about right for burning most of the planet’s fossil coal, oil and gas?

  6. Bob Wright says:

    If “global dimming” is masking much of the GHG effect, and aerosols fall out of the sky in months or years, but CO2 will take centuries… Wouldn’t a long term downturn in economic activity allow …you know? At least there would be less soot to color snow and ice.

  7. Anthony, rabid doomsayer says:

    Tha Canadians and the Russians will be able to grow grain, but will anybody else?

  8. Ronald says:

    But my contribution to this is so small, why should I change?

  9. paulm says:

    and get a sun tan.

  10. paulm says:

    This looks like one of those smaller tipping point – temp at point where forest start to burn on a regular basis….

    Australian bushfires pump out millions of tonnes of carbon

    We still have 1.5 deg to go no matter what.

    I think the roller coaster has left the gate…run away positive feedback is here.

    Its time to start working on adaptation ….
    Britain should prepare for massive loss of landmass, warn engineers

    Action to curb carbon emissions is failing, so the UK should immediately change the way it designs buildings, transport and energy infrastructure in preparation for aworld potentially characterised by extreme heat and high sea levels, argues the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in a new report.

  11. “Action to curb carbon emissions is failing, so the UK should immediately change the way it designs buildings…..”

    What action to curb emissions? We are just getting started doing that. How do they know it is failing? Huh?

  12. Martin Hedberg says:

    Kim Holmén understands climate science. Incorrectness are more likely to origin from the journalist.

  13. llewelly says:

    1,700 ppm!
    Is that about right for burning most of the planet’s fossil coal, oil and gas?

    Maybe. The estimates I have seen for remaining conventional (that is, no tar sands, kerogen shale, etc) fossil fuel reserves range as high as 5000 GtC and as low as 800 GtC (from memory – my apologies if this is wrong, it’s late). If we assume 2 GtC => 1 ppm, and the biosphere absorbs 40% (optimistic, especially for large ammounts of CO2), the former case results in an additional 1000 ppm (1387 total, but tar sands already under extraction might raise that to 1700 ppm or more), while the later results in an additional 240 ppm (total 627 ppm). I’m highly skeptical about both claimed reserves, and the Energy Return On Investment (EROI) for extracting said reserves – so I lean toward the low end. However – as Joe has explained many times on this blog – any level much above about 450 ppm is a very serious risk. I wish I knew of a range of EROI based future emissions scenarios, which estimated EROIs for various fossil fuels, and assumed all fossil fuels above a certain EROI would be extracted and burned. Unfortunately most emissions scenarios either completely ignore remaining reserves figures (I’m looking at YOU, IPCC), or rely on estimates of reserves that were based on whatever was percieved as profitable at the time the reserves were estimated. The later is bad because such estimated are strongly affected by energy prices at the time the estimate is made, and by political or economic needs to produce an estimate within a certain range. (For example – shortly after OPEC established a rule basing a member’s influence on their estimated oil reserves, many members reported new estimates of their oil reserves – in several cases more than twice as high as previously.) I think such problems would be blunted by focusing on how much energy was required for extraction, refining, and delivery. Thus EROI.

    A further observation is that about 15% or so of CO2 emissions are from manufacture of concrete. An additional, much smaller portion, is due to land use changes and miscellaneous stuff. So total extracted fossil fuels is not the limit of human produced CO2. (Applying that to the above numbers is difficult, because running out of fossil fuels does not prevent manufacture of concrete.)

    And as Joe as pointed out here a few times – permafrost, clathrates, peat bogs, and forests (especially the peat forests of Indonesia) all pose the risk of releasing CO2 and / or methane in response to warming. In the case of permafrost, the theoretical limit of released CO2 in response to warming probably exceeds that released by burning all fossil fuels. The ice core records, for what is worth, appear to show an amplifier in the global carbon cycle, which seems to roughly double the effect of warming or cooling effects from other sources. (That is a suggested – but as far as I know far from certain – explanation for why CO2 appears to lag temperature in the ice core records.) If such an amplifier exists, it could be due to one of these natural carbon stores.

  14. It is clear that we need to do a lot more for global warming. Current strategies are not going to be enough. There is hope, however. Look back eight months. The renewable energy sector and electrical car industry were turned around in less than three months. What produced this? Market forces did.

    Mark C. Henderson develop a large-scale envrionemtal strategy that uses these same forces. It might be the only thing powerful enough to address environmental issues such as climate change. The strategy is outlined in a book called, The 21st Century Environmental Revolution.

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  15. paulm says:

    “There is hope, however. Look back eight months. The renewable energy sector and electrical car industry were turned around in less than three months. What produced this? Market forces did.”

    Specifically, the peaking of oil and oil prices driving the collapse of the Financial sector, thence the onset of the depression.

    Funny how we have to put our hope in to having a depression. Hopefully, we can restructure from here.

    I don’t see us doing that though, as we will have more and more extreme climate events resulting in chaos and then we will also be running out of oil.

    I think humanity will survive, only its not going to be pretty.

  16. Neil Hampshire says:

    Hmm CO2 levels jump!
    Should we be seeing global temperatures jump over the same time scale?

    Hadley temperature anomoly data is as follows
    (2005) 0.474
    (2006) 0.421
    (2007) 0.399
    (2008) 0.327
    This looks like a downward trend to me

    [JR: Yes, there are significant delays between the rise in CO2 concentrations and the temperature rise. Also, as this blog has made clear, there are a number of short term factors that impact things in the, uhh, short term.]

  17. Uli says:

    Hallo Neil Hampshire,
    “Hmm CO2 levels jump!
    Should we be seeing global temperatures jump over the same time scale?”

    Of course, no!
    On short time scales up to about 30 years changes in aerosols (volcanic and human related) and also ocean heat uptake dominate the global temperatures. Even the change in sun output from solar maximum to solar minimum has a slightly greater temperature response then the steady incresing CO2. And also natural variabilty does not cease to exist in response to incresing CO2. Look at similar periods in the past of the Hadley temperatures, you will find more downward trends like this.
    Only if large short term fluctuations of CO2 level would occur (like from 320ppm to 380ppm in 5years and back to 330ppm in 5year and back to 400ppm in 5years again, for example) CO2effect would also dominate shorttime variability. Or alternatively, if the increase in CO2 would be more the 12 per cent per year (approx. 46ppm/year) then then would be almost every year warmer then the past year. But for the current situation, this could not be expected.

  18. George says:

    Why is Co2 treated as a pollutant? It is essential to life. No Co2 no life. Me personally, even if Co2 is causing most of the warming this past century (which I’m not entirely sold on), I prefer a warmer world than a colder world. More Co2, more plant growth. Less Co2 (say the scientists) more chance of an ice age….

    Except, why did the Ordovician period have Co2 levels in the 4000ppm range and the earth had an ice age?

    Anyone have any answers??

  19. ED says:

    I. Did you misread, JR?

    [JR: No. Levels are concentrations. You misread it.]

    You reminded folks of the difference between (net) annual emissions (NAEs) on the one hand, and CO2 concentrations (CC), on the other hand.

    You said also, “There isn’t a global economic downturn big enough to stop the growth of carbon dioxide concentrations”

    But the article you quoted, you quoted as speaking NOT about “concentrations” but rather about “Emissions”

    Either you misread, or (if you’re trying to make another point) your post, while appreciated (and while depressing), is very unclear, particularly in light or your sentence quoted in the second paragraph of this post, and the fact the quoted article you criticize, doesn’t use the word “concentrations” (at least not as you quote it, I didn’t go reaad the original) at all. Clarification?


    II. Also, the “highest in 650,000 years” figure is outdated: since 2006 it’s been known to be highest in 800,000 years:

    That’s not the scariest: “In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years. The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” That makes the rate today not twice or three times or 10 times but about 75 TIMES faster than the fastest rate of increase in the past 800,000 years

    . I’d like to see you blog about this. This rate statistic is more ominous than just “higher than at any time” since it’s highest level AND highest (by far, far, many many times order) RATE of increase too.

    III. Having questioned with two points above I’ll say you’re quite Hawk-eyes with that Global Monitoring Division page..I was there just a few weeks back (and I am usually careful to scroll down so I don’t confuse the Mauna Loa with the Global numbers) and could have sworn that at that time just a few weeks ago, they have a lower preliminary figure so you much have caught them right after the revision.

  20. ED says:

    One problem we have despite the fact that, yes, CO2 used to be higher than even today, if you go back tens and tens of millions of years, is that we don’t want New Orleans and half of Florida and much else underwater.

    Second problem is even if we didn’t mind all of that real estate underwater is, the RATE of increase of CO2 is many, many times faster than it’s been in the last 800,000 years at least…see preceding post of even if you were ok at a PPM level that’s much higher than today, the world reaching it in natural much much slower rates would be one thing (bad enough, with all the lost coastline and problems I add to that in the list below) but much worse if you reach that world not 3 or 10 times faster but 75 times faster rate of change of CO2, since the world can’t adjust (animal and plant life, ocean acidification and other things) …try stopping your car slowly. Now try slamming ont the breaks. See the difference? The rate at which change happens matters.

    Thirdly, even if these was no warming, the oceans are becoming more and more acidified due to carbonic acid being formed due to higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This means we’re helping kill the creatures at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean, which if we harm badly enough, could mess up the entire planet’s food chain.

    And there are other adverse effects,…it’s not just “The world will be a little warmer” it will be more extremes of wet and dry (flooding and dust bowls) as have long been understood when you add to the total energy in the system, more humidity gets carried and then in a warmer world dumped all at once. IT’s not like moving your house thermostat from 68 to 71. In your house, you used to have 68 all the time, then you have 71 all the time. In the world, the AVERAGE temperature may go up by several degrees, but there are more extreme events, more extreme heat waves (along with cooler days) so the average goes up by a little, but there number of extreme heat (and extreme wet/dry cycles) events and their severity and how long they last, gets worse.

    That’s just the tip of the iceberg…there’s a lot more, but as you can see, the over-simplified “oh well, it’ll just be a little warmer, that’s all” story they tell us in either bad media reporting or in “global warming doesn’t exist” lies, really is very factually inacurate. They almost never, ever, talk about the other issues either, like ocean acidification.

    If you want to invest the time to better understand these issues that will affect all of us and our kids and grandkids, some links:

    On ocean acidification due to rising CO2:

    Remember that pH is a Logarithmic scale, similar to the Richter earthquare scale in which higher by “1” means 10 times lower pH by “only” 0.1 means ocean acid concentration levels are already 30% higher (that’s the math based on that “only” 0.1 lower of the logarithm) than they were before the industrial revolusion.

    More here:

    This is a 2008 update in which scientists state “Man-made pollution is raising ocean acidity at least 10 times faster than previously thought”

    Sorry to bear bad news but , no, it’s not just “oh, it’ll just be a bit warmer” it’s playing Russian Roulette with the future, that’s what we’re doing..

  21. larrydalooza says:

    Wow. You people are crazy. CO2 is not a problem… it is a tool of stasis that works in coincidence of other chemicals and mechanisms. The assumptions that led to the declaration of CO2 as a polutant are megalomaniacal. Efficiency and clealiness are Godliness… but C02? Who will be the first lemming to stop this nonsense? I will air condition the forehead of the first person to collect a dime from me in the name of reducing my emission of this most sensible compound.

  22. ED says:

    As of today 3/17/09 the Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide – Global data has been update to make the CO2 increase, for 2008 (previously with the provisional figure of 2.28ppm increase for the calendar year as noted by Joseph Romm) has been updated..the latest figure is “only” 2.08ppm. Of course we used to see 2ppm increase per year as huge, now 2.08 is “only” 2.08….stay tuned to see if there is any last updates as they get the more complete data set… see the second chart from the top (not the top one) at

    And the “head in the sand” crowd produced yet another series of random unrelated and un-proven statements like “s. The assumptions that led to the declaration of CO2 as a polutant are megalomaniacal” Guess what? It is only CO2 at levels that are (a) too high (b) increasing too fast that makes it a pollutant. The most safe item in the world if it is too high, or increasing too fast (or, asin this case, both) becomes a dangerous pollutant to the environment.

  23. Another Ed says:

    I’m just a simple artist who’s looked at some numbers. Could you please help me find the missing CO2. Since there’s about 3,000 BMT of CO2 in the atmosphere and you say the average increase is 2.1 ppm/yr over about an average of 380 ppm, the rate of increase per year is 0.0055%. I looked at the numbers from that Hawiian station and it’s about 0.0051% per year over about the same period. This comes to about an increase of 16 BMT in the atmosphere each year.

    Since the annual production of CO2 from fossil fuels is about 27 BMT and the total from all human activity is about 37 BMT, there sure is a lot missing. And all the numbers I’ve seen indicate this has been the pattern for many decades. So where is all that CO2?

    Also, since this would indicate that at least half of all human produced CO2 somehow leaves the atmosphere every year, how come I see all those estimates that the CO2 we produce has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 50 years to 200 years? It sure looks like it’s much less. I believe this difference in CO2 lifetime would have very great effects on the projections for the rate of Global Warming increase if this warming was due mostly to the CO2 we produce. For example, the UN projections I’ve seen assume about 100 years.

    Oh, and from what I’ve read, before we started messing things up, temperature change generally came before CO2 change. So the ocean thing could work backwards from what you said. Couldn’t natural temperature increases, from who knows where at this point, increase CO2 in the atmosphere?

    Just a few questions and observations.

  24. Another Ed says:

    Correction —

    It should be 0.55% and 0.51% or factors of 0.0055 and 0.0051 per year increase in CO2. The results are the same. An increase of about 16 billion meteric tons (BMT) in the atmosphere vs. about 27 BMT to 37 BMT produced by us per year.

  25. Agaguk says:

    «What action to curb emissions? We are just getting started doing that. How do they know it is failing? Huh?»
    Because nobody have enough brain to do the most basic required actions to avoid anhilation. They stay sit on their huge fat asses and count their stupid cash. They are not starting any thing they just talk… blablabla. The sea will raise of 33m, north pole will be year long ice free and agriculture will fail every where before they move their fat asses. (They = Govs, corps, peoples crying on climate but who are too lasy to do the RADICAL change required to save mankind, etc.)

    I lost any hope to see the required ‘ACTIONS’. May be if this economic crisis turn in an absolute economic anhilation worldwide… we can have small hope.

  26. Frank says:

    Another Ed – two “natural” processes have accelerated in response to rising CO2 and they remove about 50% of the anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere annually, These are 1) absorption into terrestrial ecosystems via faster photosynthesis and greater plant growth, and 2) diffusion into the oceans. Do some background reading on the carbon cycle, an excellent IPCC chapter in working group 1 will help you along. Unfortunately the land “sink” is highly variable and saturating, and the ocean sink seems to be weakening, so more and more anthropogenic co2 stays in the atmosphere even if we have a short term economic downturn. And yes, as oceans warm, their co2 sink capacity also reduces. But at the moment CO2 is acidifying the oceans (it is being absorbed), so it is not possible to argue that this is the source of CO2 in the atmosphere.

  27. mattstheory says:

    Don’t worry so much about it. You would have to be an idiot to think that the only thing that changes the temperature of the Earth is CO2. The Earth is changing regardless of how much and what the cause is. Prepare for the changes. Arguing cause or ways to reduce CO2 should be finished. Lets find a way to control it without controlling CO2. It only makes up less than a percent of the total atmosphere. There are many different layers and functions to the ATMOSPHERE. (_._)

  28. ED says:

    Ok so as of today June 3rd, 2009, the website
    (see second graph and table, for Global) now tells us that in 2008 the CO2 average reading has increased by 1.84ppm.

    As I noted in my post above, by 3/17/09 they had revised the earlier 2.28 down to 2.08

    Are we supposed to believe that a change of this size is normal and typical to be made after March 17 of the following year? Is political pressure affecting them? If so that’s extremely worrying. If not, then it’s still worrying that the middle of March of the next year they still have a reading that far off (and further in the same direction as earlier correction) for the preceding year.

    The symbolic nature of two consecutive years in which CO2 increases by 2ppm or more is very powerful indeed. As BBC reported in 2004, the back to back changes in 2002 and 2003 of more than 2ppm each was the first time that happened “without a strong El Nino” (presumably to distinguish from teh back to back changes of more than 2ppm each in 1987 and 1988). For two 2ppm or higher readings to register for 2007 and 2008 without El Nino could potentially make powerful headlines. So one has to wonder about the second revision of that magnitude (a revision by 0.05 at this late date would be less of an alarm bell). Again, either that or else at the very least a blemish on their calculations. although I haven’t followed their website as closely as some here, I have followed it in previous years and don’t recall a change of this size 0.4ppm after February…

    Further, “could potentially” above does not mean “automatically unless pressured by concerned citizens”; indeed the mainstream media did not make much of this back when the 2028ppm figure came out.

    What’s going on here? Maybe an investigative reporter will look into this.

    Of course, the climate denialists will as always have a picnic. Believe it or not those of us who were very concerned because we pay attention to the science would be relieved it it really is “only” an increase by 1.84…there are already scientific measurements that feedbacks are kicking in (example: oceans are already absorbing less CO2) so back-to-back increases by more than 2ppm/year are very possible, probably likely barring other surprises, in our future in any case. But more timely consistency from would be helpful.

  29. jko says:

    So Co2 has
    gone from roughly .02% to .04% concentration in the atmosphere (200 ppm to 400ppm)

    [JR: You got it. If we go to 0.06% it is game over.]

  30. Leif says:

    I was thinking that it would make a nice visual demonstration to show something, water?, with a dye at 200 ppm and 400 ppm and 600 ppm so that people could actually see that there is a difference. I do not have the scientific back ground to say what would be the best material to use but I know some dyes work on very low concentrations. Anybody want to weigh in? Readily available, non toxic?