Expert Insights

Earth's Rising CO2 Levels

Kevin Jennings
Jul 2023
In this article, we hope to help you understand the earth’s rising CO2 levels and why reducing greenhouse gases from automobiles is essential for our planet’s future.
Left: Nuclear power plant producing steam. Right: EV plugged in and charging.

Earth’s CO2 Levels and Why They're Rising

Here at GreenCars, we are advocates for a greener, cleaner world. We believe that zero-emission vehicles are a step in the right direction in creating a more sustainable planet for us all. To that end, we offer a variety of guides to help you better understand the current state of humankind’s pollution challenges, how we got here, and why the need to make changes are so important.

In this guide, we hope to help you understand the earth’s rising CO2 levels and why reducing greenhouse gases from automobiles is essential for our planet’s future.

History of Greenhouse Gases Timeline

The History of Greenhouse Gases

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to claim that fossil fuel combustion might eventually result in enhanced global warming. He believed that the combination of carbon dioxide being produced by industries and the coming of gasoline-powered vehicles when combined with our planet’s natural greenhouse effect, would cause CO2 concentration to double. He proposed that human activities could contribute to the warming of the earth by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The invention of infrared spectroscopy in the 1940’s allowed scientists to measure long-wave radiation and it was proven that increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide was resulting in more absorption of infrared radiation. In 1955, Gilbert Plass concluded that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would intercept infrared radiation, causing the warming of the planet.

In the 1960’s, Charles Keeling was able to show concentration curves for atmospheric CO2 in Antarctica and Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The curves showed an increase of global annual temperature from the 1940’s to the 1970’s heralding what we know as global warming. By the 1980’s, the global annual mean temperature curve started to rise and increase steeply.

By 1988 it was acknowledged that the climate was warmer than at any period in recorded history since 1880. The greenhouse effect theory gained traction and organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted the impact of greenhouse gases to existing climate models. The Panel consists of over 2,500 scientific and technical experts from more than 60 countries around the globe. We now know that the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1990.

In 1998 the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Japan requiring participating countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least five percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States did not participate.

Factory at sunset

Carbon Dioxide Today

The global average atmospheric carbon dioxide rate in June 2021 was 417 parts per million, an all-time high. Carbon dioxide levels are currently higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years. The last time that atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than three million years ago, when temperatures were three to five degrees higher than during the pre-industrial era and the oceans were 80 feet higher than today.

It has been determined that carbon dioxide levels are rising mostly due to the fossil fuels we are using for energy. For 2018 alone, global fossil fuel emissions reached an all-time high and about half of the CO2 that has been emitted since 1850 remains in the atmosphere! The other half has been partially dissolved in the world’s oceans.

CO2 in our oceans reacts with water molecules, producing carbonic acid and lowers the ocean’s pH balance. This is called ocean acidification and it has resulted in a 30 percent increase in acidity below the waves. Increasing acidity interferes with marine life’s ability to extract calcium from the water to build shells and skeletons.

The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than any previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age, 17,000 years ago.

Wind farm

Why Reducing CO2 is Important

Greenhouse gases absorb and radiate heat. Warmed by the sun, our land and sea surfaces radiate heat as well. Unlike oxygen or nitrogen, greenhouse gases absorb heat and release it over time, trapping additional heat and raising our planet’s average temperature.

Carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas, staying in the atmosphere much longer than other gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons. The increase of CO2 is responsible for two-thirds of the total energy imbalance that is causing the earth’s temperature to rise. Over the past 171 years, human activities have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by 48 percent over pre-industrial levels found in 1850.

If we do not reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it will continue to cause the temperature to rise and also cause many devastating anomalies. Rising CO2 levels could cause crops to produce smaller amounts of such nutrients as zinc, iron and protein. Using international datasets of food consumption, a recent study estimates these changes could cause an additional 175 million people to be zinc deficient and an additional 122 million people to be protein deficient by 2050. Climate change also threatens food security around the world through heatwaves, drought, wild fires and crop failure.

A 2019 report by the IPCC says that 670 million people in high mountain regions depend on glaciers for their water supply but climate change is causing these glaciers to disappear. As glacial water storage shrinks, river will run dry. Melting glaciers and ice sheets have already caused sea levels to rise by 15 centimeters during the 20th century. The report says sea levels are now rising twice as fast and are continuing to accelerate.

Rising sea levels will contribute to high tides and storm surges each year in many regions, increasing risk of flooding in many low-lying coastal cities and small islands. Precipitation rates, tropical cyclones and hurricanes will increase in frequency as well.

As the earth continues to heat up, permafrost that has been frozen for thousands of years is thawing. If greenhouse gases continue to increase, we may lose 70 percent of current permafrost and that would have a devastating effect on our planet. Arctic permafrost holds enormous amounts of ancient carbon, and once released, this would increase the concentration of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

How Can I Reduce My Carbon Emissions?

Small changes we call can make have a big impact on saving our planet from climate change. One of the best ways you can help lessen the effect of climate change is to reduce carbon emissions. Here are some simple ways you can help.

3 airplanes reducing in size

Reduce Air Travel

As of 2017, transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions eclipsed the amount of electricity generation emissions. So, transportation is the number one contributor to greenhouse gases. Eliminating just one roundtrip flight will save 1.6 metric tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

woman preparing food

Eat Less Red Meat

Over 220 grams of carbon dioxide is produced for every gram of beef produced. Worldwide, this equates to four percent of greenhouse gas emissions. You can reduce your carbon footprint by eating less red meat.

man planting a tree

Plant Trees

Deforestation is one of the major contributors of carbon emissions. Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide, but only when they are living and thriving. Planting trees is a great way to take positive climate action and reduce our negative impact on the environment.

a house with solar panels on the roof

Switch to Clean Energy

Wind turbines, geothermal energy and solar panels offer a higher level of sustainability and produce low carbon emissions. Finding a source of clean energy for your home will reduce our country’s dependence on oil, coal and natural gas. Find out more about buying clean energy and green energy here.

man driving a car

Drive an Electric Car

If you are still driving a gasoline-powered car, try reducing the miles you drive by using public transportation, carpool, ride a bike, or walk when possible. When you drive, accelerate slowly and use your air conditioner less. Driving a hybrid or all-electric car will help the environment even more by reducing the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. An all-electric vehicle produces zero-emissions!