This week you will hear a lot about CO2 emissions, but perhaps less about CO2 concentrations. If you are to grasp the implications of climate change, it's very important to understand the difference.
The difference between CO2 concentrations and emissions
Lots of scientists say it's best to imagine the atmosphere as like a bathtub. The CO2 emissions are the water flowing into the bath and the CO2 concentrations are the amount of water in the bath.
Human activities like burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and making cement generate emissions that increase the concentrations.
CO2 concentrations on the rise
Information from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii shows how CO2 concentrations are rising. Before the industrial revolution, we averaged around 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 2020, we hit 413 parts per million. Nature does absorb some of the CO2, but it can't keep pace with our emissions.
At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, world leaders will talk about reaching 'net zero' emissions, which means stopping filling up the metaphorical bathtub, but the CO2 concentrations will remain high for hundreds of years. That in turn, means global warming will continue even in a net-zero world.
Copernicus Climate Change Service Director, Carlo Buontempo, says that "there would be inertia in the system and the temperature will keep going up a bit before going down."
Unfortunately, this means that "the glaciers will keep melting and sea-levels will continue to rise and this will continue rising for the next hundreds of years." This is a thought-provoking prospect.
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