WE LIKE competition and we like to break records. In fact we have a book called Guinness Book of World Records that documents any human achievement and the extremes of the natural world. Tallest, smallest, fattest, thinnest, fastest, slowest - you name it, the book has it. But there are world records that for sure we don’t want to achieve: the world records to global destruction and extinction of the human species. Yet unintentionally or intentionally, this is exactly what is happening.
The biggest environmental threat, Climate Change, has set world records again. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, January to September this year is the warmest year to date for the globe. The average global temperature for this period was 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit above average, surpassing the heat record set in 2015 by 0.23 degrees. Europe and Asia had their warmest September; Africa had its second; and North America had its third.
This hot climate is due to another world record: the highest concentration so far of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to a press release from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), globally averaged concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the symbolic and significant milestone of 400 parts per million for the first time in 2015 and surged again to new records in 2016 on the back of the very powerful El Niño event.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels had previously reached the 400 ppm barrier for certain months of the year and in certain locations but never before on a global average basis for the entire year. The longest-established greenhouse gas monitoring station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, predicts that CO2 concentrations will stay above 400 ppm for the whole of 2016 and not dip below that level for many generations.
The growth spurt in CO2 was fuelled by the El Niño event, which started in 2015 and had a strong impact well into 2016. This triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of “sinks” like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2. These sinks currently absorb about half of CO2 emissions but there is a risk that they may become saturated, which would increase the fraction of emitted carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere, according to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.
In addition to reducing the capacity of vegetation to absorb CO2 the powerful El Niño also led to an increase in CO2 emissions from forest fires. According to the Global Fire Emission Database, CO2 emissions in Equatorial Asia – where there were serious forest fires in Indonesia in August-September 2015 - were more than twice as high as the 1997-2015 average.
CO2 accounted for about 65% of radiative forcing by long-lived greenhouse gases. Before the invention of machines, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was 278 ppm. This is the ideal level because there is a balance between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels has altered the natural balance and in 2015, globally averaged levels were 144% of pre-industrial levels. In 2015, global annual average concentration of CO2 concentrations reached 400.0 ppm.
With these two undesired world records, we will soon see more world records: record sickness, record drought, record powerful storms ( like the recent Signal No. 5 Typhoon Lawin), record extinction of species and perhaps, God forbids, record deaths.