Greenhouse gases reach record high, increasing stakes for COP26 climate summit
The coal-fired Eggborough Power Station, near Selby, England. A report from UN scientists ahead of the COP26 climate summit warns that greenhouse gases have hit record levels. | John Giles / PA via AP

Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high last year, United Nations scientists have warned in the run-up to the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow next week.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere rose at a faster rate in 2020 than over the previous decade and the trend has continued this year, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a U.N. agency.

The economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic did not have any discernible impact on atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and their rate of accumulation, the WMO said.

If greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase at current rates, the world will see temperature rises far above the internationally agreed long-term targets, which aim to limit global warming to 2°C, preferably 1.5°C, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said that the latest information on greenhouse gases contained a stark scientific message for climate negotiators at the COP26 talks, adding: “We are way off track.”

The last time the Earth had similar concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was three to five million years ago when the average global temperature was 2°C-3°C higher than now.

Professor Taalas said: “Many countries are now setting carbon-neutral targets and it is hoped that COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments. We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact on the gases that drive climate change.

“We need to revisit our industrial, energy, and transport systems and whole way of life. The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible. There is no time to lose.”

The bulletin was published as world leaders and negotiators prepare to gather at the COP26 climate conference on Oct. 31, where countries will be under pressure to take greater action to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that are driving rising temperatures.

Responding to the report, Edinburgh Climate Change Institute director Dave Reay said that the true success or failure of COP26 would be written in the skies in the form of greenhouse gas concentrations. He warned that the “small window of opportunity” to stabilize those concentrations was about to vanish.

“This new report from the WMO provides a brutally frank assessment of what’s been written there to date,” Professor Reay said. “So far, it’s an epic fail.”


Niall Christie
Niall Christie

Journalist Niall Christie is the Scotland editor for Morning Star online.