The Moving Finger writes: CO2 in the atmosphere continues to increase

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Paul Danish

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

—Omar Khayyam

Times have changed since Omar was knocking out verse in the 12th century, but when it comes to global warming, the Moving Finger writes and moves on pretty much as it always did.

On June 7, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the amount of carbon dioxide in the air exceeded 411 parts per million (ppm) during the month of May, which is the highest monthly level ever recorded. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which runs the CO2 monitoring station at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, echoed the finding.

According to NOAA, May’s average CO2 reading was 411.25 ppm. Scripps’ figure was slightly higher, 411.31 ppm.

Moreover, the growth rate of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing, according to NOAA.

In the 1980s, the average annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 was 1.6 ppm per year. In the 1990s it was actually down a bit, 1.5 ppm per year. Since then it’s been climbing. In 2017 it increased to 2.3 ppm per year.

The last six year-to-year increases have been above 2 ppm.

“Many of us had hoped to see the rise in CO2 slowing by now, but sadly that isn’t the case,” said Dr. Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps CO2 monitoring program. Tell it to the Moving Finger, Doc.

“CO2 levels are continuing to grow at an all-time record rate because emissions from coal, oil and natural gas are also at record levels,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist at NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network in a press release announcing this year’s numbers. “Today’s emissions will still be trapping heat in the atmosphere thousands of years from now.” The Moving Finger couldn’t have writ it better.

NOAA got the finger a week earlier as well. On May 30, a week before the annual CO2 level report came out, NOAA reported that its Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, which tracks annual changes in the combined totals of five major greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, had risen by 1 percentage point in 2017 from 2016 levels –— and 41 percentage points from 1990 levels.

The index tracks CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NO2) and two chlorofluorocarbons that were banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1987 because they damaged the atmosphere’s ozone layer.

Some background: For greenhouse gas measurement purposes, climatologists have picked the year 1750 as the beginning of the industrial revolution. Analysis of air trapped in ice cores taken from Antarctica found that for the 10,000 years prior to 1750 CO2 levels in the atmosphere were at a relatively stable 280 ppm. After 1750, they began to rise, reaching 354 ppm at the end of 1990 and 411 ppm in May this year.

So how come CO2 levels keep rising despite the expenditure of more than 20 years of piety, wit, treasure, global accords and happy talk?

Funny how no one ever mentions global population growth.

The global population growth rate is falling — from 1.32 percent a year in 1998, the first full year after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, to 1.12 percent a year in 2017 — but the absolute number of people on the planet is still growing. By more than 80 million people a year.

Global population at the end of 1998 was just shy of 6 billion. At the end of 2017, it was 7.6 billion.

In other words, in 20 years the world’s population grew by 200 million more people than the current population of China, which is about 1.4 billion.

Almost all of that increase occurred in developing countries, all of which are chasing Western lifestyles, starting with urbanization. At the same time that the world’s population was growing by 1.6 billion, the population of the world’s cities was growing by about 1.5 billion.

Urbanization on that scale is a voracious consumer of energy in all forms.  Twenty-first-century cities couldn’t exist without supplies of electricity, gasoline and natural gas that grow as they grow.

In the last 20 years, there has been enough residential, commercial and infrastructure construction in the world’s cities to accommodate the equivalent of the population of China and then some.

Wind and solar energy sources haven’t come remotely close to meeting the energy demand of the 1.6 billion people added to the world’s population in the last 20 years, never mind producing enough to replace existing fossil fuel sources.

And, if the world’s population continues to grow by 80 million a year, it’s delusional to assume renewables alone will be able to meet the demand for energy from the next 1.6 billion people who will be added to the world’s population by 2038.

And so the Moving Finger will continue to write “CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by more than 2 ppm CO2 this year,” and having writ will move on, pausing only to flip you off if you think to can stop CO2 increases without stopping population increases.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.