Record CO2 levels means humanity is in uncharted territory Media Release

May 11, 2013 - 7:00am

Humanity is entering uncharted territory today, as the concentration of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a record daily average high of 400 parts per million (ppm), said The Climate Institute today.

“Humanity has never been here before. The atmosphere hasn’t seen CO2 this high for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. We are in dangerous and uncharted territory, with little time to ensure a safe and sustainable future,” said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute. 

The 400 ppm mark was measured at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory by the University of California – San Diego, which has tracked northern hemisphere levels of CO2 since 1958 (see Figure 1 below). Tasmania’s Cape Grim has taken records since 1976. Both have tracked steady trend increases, but greater northern seasonality allowed Mauna Loa to measure 400 ppm first. Both are part of a larger network of similar scientific stations.

“Atmospheric CO2 levels are 40 per cent higher than before the Industrial Revolution,” Connor said. “Climate scientists say the rise of heat-trapping greenhouse gases is already putting weather systems on steroids with substantial human and economic costs now in evidence.” 

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology says that rainfall deficiencies are spreading following a string of prolonged heat waves and record-breaking temperatures. January 2013 was Australia’s hottest month on record during the hottest summer, with sea-surface temperatures exceptionally warm too. 

“Because it’s in our national interest to avoid further dangerous warming, Australia joined the US, China and over 170 other countries to commit to avoid a 2°C warming,” Connor said. “We have no time to lose.” 

Climate scientists writing in the prestigious journal Nature found that for there to be a good chance of staying below 2°C, the world needs to limit CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2050 to no more than 1,000 billion tonnes. Already, nearly 25 per cent of the 1,000 billion tonne carbon budget has been spent just in the first six years of the century.

Scientists associate 400 ppm with the Pliocene epoch, from about 3 to 5 million years ago, when the world was 3°C warmer, the seas 25 metres higher, and the Greenland ice sheet was impermanent.

“Australia’s emissions growth has slowed recently, but it is crucial that our domestic carbon pollution declines significantly as we approach 2020 and beyond. We must also work with other countries to ensure the growing number of carbon markets and clean energy incentives are harnessed to turn around global emissions.”

Connor concluded: “As we change the chemical make-up of the atmosphere, we are pushing up the average global temperature. This is one more clear alarm bell which we ignore at great risk, because, when it comes to extreme weather and climate impacts, ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet’!” 

For more on CO2 and carbon jargon see The Climate Institute’s Carbon 101

You can also listen to a podcast  by Andrew Demetriou, CEO of the Australian Football League, and Dr Graeme Pearman, former head of CSIRO Atmospheric Research; both of whom are Board Members of The Climate Institute.

Figure 1. The Keeling Curve: A daily record of atmospheric CO2  from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California- San Diego. The left graphic tracks concentration between 1958 and 2013. The right graphic tracks concentration over the last 800,000 years. (Source:

Figure 2. A system out of balance. Earth’s natural systems are only able to absorb approximately 50 per cent of our current annual CO2 emissions. (Source: Carbon 101, The Climate Institute)

For more information
Kristina Stefanova | Communications Director, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299
John Connor | CEO, The Climate Institute | 02 8239 6299
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