Concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere surged to a record high in 2016, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Last year’s increase was 50% higher than the average of the past 10 years.
Researchers say a combination of human activities and the El Niño weather phenomenon drove CO2 to a level not seen in 800,000 years.
Scientists say this risks making global temperature targets largely unattainable.
This year’s greenhouse gas bulletin produced by the WMO, is based on measurements taken in 51 countries. Research stations dotted around the globe measure concentrations of warming gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
The figures published by the WMO are what’s left in the atmosphere after significant amounts are absorbed by the Earth’s “sinks”, which include the oceans and the biosphere.
2016 saw average concentrations of CO2 hit 403.3 parts per million, up from 400ppm in 2015.
“It is the largest increase we have ever seen in the 30 years we have had this network,” Dr Oksana Tarasova, chief of WMO’s global atmosphere watch programme, told BBC News.
“The largest increase was in the previous El Niño, in 1997-1998 and it was 2.7ppm and now it is 3.3ppm, it is also 50% higher than the average of the last ten years.”
El Niño impacts the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by causing droughts that limit the uptake of CO2 by plants and trees.
Emissions from human sources have slowed down in the last couple of yearsaccording to research, but according to Dr Tarasova, it is the cumulative total in the atmosphere that really matters as CO2 stays aloft and active for centuries.
Over the past 70 years, says the report, the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 100 times larger than it was at the end of the last ice age.
Rapidly increasing atmospheric levels of CO2 and other gases have the potential, according to the study to “initiate unpredictable changes in the climate system… leading to severe ecological and economic disruptions.”
The study notes that since 1990 there has been a 40% increase in total radiative forcing, that’s the warming effect on our climate of all greenhouse gases.
“Geological-wise, it is like an injection of a huge amount of heat,” said Dr Tarasova.
“The changes will not take ten thousand years like they used to take before, they will happen fast – we don’t have the knowledge of the system in this state, that is a bit worrisome!”
According to experts, the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene era. The climate then was 2-3C warmer, and sea levels were 10-20m higher due to the melting of Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets.
Other experts in the field of atmospheric research agreed that the WMO findings were a cause for concern.
“The 3ppm CO2 growth rate in 2015 and 2016 is extreme – double the growth rate in the 1990-2000 decade,” Prof Euan Nisbet from Royal Holloway University of London told BBC News.
“It is urgent that we follow the Paris agreement and switch rapidly away from fossil fuels: there are signs this is beginning to happen, but so far the air is not yet recording the change.”
Another concern in the report is the continuing, mysterious rise of methane levels in the atmosphere, which were also larger than the average over the past ten years. Prof Nisbet says there is a fear of a vicious cycle, where methane drives up temperatures which in turn releases more methane from natural sources.
“The rapid increase in methane since 2007, especially in 2014, 2015, and 2016, is different. This was not expected in the Paris agreement. Methane growth is strongest in the tropics and sub-tropics. The carbon isotopes in the methane show that growth is not being driven by fossil fuels. We do not understand why methane is rising. It may be a climate change feedback. It is very worrying.”
The implications of these new atmospheric measurements for the targets agreed under the Paris climate pact, are quite negative, say observers.
“The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.
“We have many of the solutions already to address this challenge. What we need now is global political will and a new sense of urgency.”
The report has been issued just a week ahead of the next instalment of UN climate talks, in Bonn. Despite the declaration by President Trump that he intends to take the US out of the deal, negotiators meeting in Germany will be aiming to advance and clarify the rulebook of the Paris agreement.
So … that was fast. US natural gas stakeholders barely had time to congratulate themselves for pushing coal out of the power generation market, and it looks like karma is already getting the last laugh. Low-cost renewable energy is beginning to nudge natural gas aside. In the most recent and striking development, California’s massive 262-megawatt Puente gas power plant proposal has been shelved, perhaps permanently.
One key element is consumer pushback. At first glance, the proposal doesn’t seem overly controversial. The proposed plan, a project of NRG Energy, does not involve constructing a new facility. It would have replaced two existing gas units at the company’s existing Mandalay power generation facility in Oxnard, California.
All things being equal, the proposal would provide at least some degree of environmental benefit, because the new units would use 80% less water for cooling than the existing ones.
However, criticism of the new gas project was intense. Penn sums it up: earlier this month, a two-member review committee of the California Energy Commission took the rare step of issuing a statement recommending that the full Commission reject the plans after receiving “hundreds of messages protesting the project as another potential pollution threat to a community already overwhelmed by electricity-generating plants.”
Aside from concerns about local air quality, Penn also cites an LA Times investigation indicating that the state’s energy policy has over-estimated the demand for natural gas power plants, resulting in artificially high rates:
“The commissioners’ recommendation followed Los Angeles Times investigations that showed the state has overbuilt the electricity system, primarily with natural gas plants, and has so much clean energy that it has to shut down some plants while paying other states to take the power California can’t use. The overbuilding has added billions of dollars to ratepayers’ bills in recent years.”
According to Penn, NRG officials maintain that older plant retirements by 2021 make replacement imperative to build up now.
At current costs, local ratepayers won’t get much relief if old power units are replaced with wind or solar.
Land use issues and environmental justice issues also come into play. NRG’s Mandalay power generation facility is located on the beach, and as NRG acknowledges, in 2014 the City of Oxnard enacted a moratorium on coastal development.
That complicates development plans within the power plant site, though NRG emphasizes that the final decision rests with state-level regulators.
Among those objecting to the plant from outside the local community is billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who co-authored an op-ed about the proposed facility raising the environmental justice issue:
“…in our state, not all beaches are created equal. That becomes painfully clear if you drive 50 miles north of Los Angeles to Oxnard, where the beaches have been seized by corporate polluters, marred by industrial waste and devastated by three fossil-fuel power plants that sit along the shoreline.
“Oxnard has more coastal power plants than any other city in the state, and not coincidentally, its population is predominantly Latino and low-income….”
Oxnard residents — and no doubt, real estate developers — are looking forward to transitioning coastal property out of industrial use altogether. Here’s LA Times reporter Dan Weikel on that topic:
“Many residents of this predominantly Latino city with a population of 205,000 say they are fed up with the degradation. Their growing dissatisfaction with the condition of large sections of beach has coalesced into an effort to deindustrialize and restore the shoreline of this city that is framed by Ventura and Camarillo and wraps around the town of Port Hueneme.”
The Puente project has been suspended, not canceled. However, chances of revival are slim. Although the most recent study affirms that renewable energy is a more expensive choice currently, Steyer points out that the redevelopment of Oxnard’s beachfront could be balanced out by new economic activity related to tourism and recreation.
That opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms, as waterfront development typically drives up the cost of housing, squeezing former residents to outer rims with longer commutes and fewer resources.
Sticking to the energy cost issue, the basic problem comes down to local energy vs. long distance transmission.
NRG makes the case that local energy generation is more reliable. That’s a fair assessment as a general principle, as the old model of centralized power plants falls out of favor. Local and on-site generation is becoming a consensus argument among energy experts, regardless of the power source.
On the other hand, the risk involved in transmitting electricity from remote wind farms and solar power plants could be offset by local storage sites, where the growing microgrid movement would come into play.
New tools for financing energy efficiency improvements could also help tamp down local energy demand and ease the way for a more interactive grid that enables consumers to tweak their electricity consumption to help prevent outages.
Cities like Oxnard can also tap into a growing renewable energy knowledge base that leverages local opportunities for renewable energy development and energy efficiency improvements.
Most of all, the Trump administration’s willy-nilly approach to oil and gas development — for example, a new proposal involving drilling along the Pacific coast — raises the stakes for citizens far outside of the communities dealing with local land use issues, leading to a groundswell of support for alternatives.
Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) has got foreign backing for a prefeasibility study on the prospect of setting up another wind farm, but one that would be anchored out at sea.
An American outfit called Keystone Engineering Inc has been invited to do the study, which PCJ Group General Manager Winston Watson indicated should be finalised by around December 2018.
The study for the offshore wind farm is being financed by a grant from the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA).
“Preliminary work should begin during the final quarter of 2017 and the study is scheduled to last for 12 months,” said Watson. “The results of the study will give an indication of the cost and viability of developing an offshore wind farm for Jamaica,” he told Gleaner Business.
The study is expected to evaluate the viability of installing the wind farm, which would represent one of the first offshore wind installations in Jamaica and the greater Caribbean region.
USTDA links US businesses to export opportunities by funding project-planning activities, pilot projects, and reverse trade missions. The US agency said in a release on the project that the development of the wind farm offers potential export opportunities for a range of American equipment and services related to the design, development, and operation of offshore wind power generation and transmission infrastructure.
Keystone is a Louisiana-based energy firm specialising in the engineering, design, procurement, project management and construction support for offshore wind and oil and gas platforms. The company was the foundation design-engineer for the first offshore wind farm installed in the United States, the 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island, USTDA noted.
Watson told Gleaner Business that it was the US agency that approached the PCJ about overseeing the implementation of a grant-funded feasibility study on the prospective offshore wind farm.
He did not indicate the size of the grant, who would develop the facility, nor what the plans were beyond the study.
“At this point it is still too early to comment on the ownership or operational arrangements for any future projects that might be implemented as a result of the study,” the PCJ boss said.
The PCJ currently owns and operates the Wigton wind farm, based at Rose Hill in Manchester. The facility, first established in 2004 and expanded over time, now has generating capacity of nearly 63 MW. Wigton’s total output is now 164,775 MWh per year. It accounts for 6.2 per cent of installed capacity on the national power grid, and 3.7 per cent of Jamaica’s electricity generation
Wigton sells the electricity it generates to the Jamaica Public Service Company, operator of the national grid.
As for the offshore farm, Watson said it was possible the facility could feed both local energy needs and exports.
“It is anticipated that any facilities that may result will provide energy for domestic usage,” he added.
In the USTDA release, Watson was quoted as saying the study would “help the PCJ to get valuable data that can attract overseas investment for the development of our offshore wind resources”.