Global Warming Clock Ticks Faster
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
[Chart of Mauna Loa data on url]
Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are rising faster than at any
time since records began, figures reveal.
Scientists cannot explain the unprecedented increase in 2002 and 2003
but they believe it is more likely to be the result of a natural
phenomenon rather than a surge in burning of fossil fuels.
The rise suggests that global warming is speeding up.
A possibility raised by scientists at the Meteorological Office's Hadley
Centre is that, as the world warms, it begins to release more carbon
from natural sources which normally soak it up, such as forests, soils
Dr Charles Keeling, 76, who began the longest-running carbon dioxide
measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in 1958, said the
unprecedented rise was "a cause for concern".
Carbon dioxide, mostly from the burning of coal, oil and gas, traps heat
that otherwise would radiate into space. Temperatures increased by 0.6C
over the 20th century and an international panel of scientists has
concluded that most of the warming was probably due to man-made
While it has yet to be proved categorically that such gases will cause
the world to heat up over the next century, the debate among serious
scientists is no longer whether the emissions are altering the climate,
but by how much and whether the costs of repairing the damage are worth it.
Before the industrial era, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere stood at around 280 parts per million (ppm), scientists have
The average concentrations last year, according to the figures recorded
by Dr Keeling's equipment 11,141ft up Mauna Loa, Hawaii's second highest
volcano, were 375.64ppm.
The Mauna Loa records show that concentrations of the gas rose by
2.08ppm in 2002 and 2.54ppm in 2003, the first time successive years
have seen an increase of more than two ppm.
According to the US agency which runs the observatory, the monthly
average rises in carbon dioxide this year were higher than the 20-year
average until June, when the rate of increase tailed off. The rise for
this year is expected to be just under two ppm.
Dr Keeling said: "The rise in the annual rate to above two parts per
million for two consecutive years is a real phenomenon.
"It is possible that this is the beginning of a natural process
unprecedented in the record. This could be a weakening of the earth's
carbon sinks, associated with the world warming, as part of a climate
change feedback mechanism. It is a cause for concern."
"Sinks" include things such as forests, soils and plankton. If they
start releasing carbon, instead of storing it, this is what climate
scientists call a "positive feedback".
Peter Cox, the head of the carbon cycle group at the Met Office's Hadley
Centre, said the figures for 2002 and 2003 looked like "an interesting
anomaly" which "could not simply be explained by greater fossil fuel
He added: "There must be something else happening, adding carbon dioxide
into the atmosphere. My guess is that there were extra forest fires in
the northern hemisphere, and particularly a very hot summer in Europe.
"This led to a dieback in vegetation and an increase in release of
carbon from the soil rather than more growing plants taking carbon out
of the atmosphere which is usually the case in summer."
Sir David King, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser, will draw
attention to the unprecedented rise in a speech on climate change at a
Greenpeace event tomorrow night.
Tom Burke, visiting professor at Imperial College, London, and a former
special adviser to the Conservative environment secretaries John Gummer
and Michael Howard, said: "The politically significant horizon is carbon
dioxide at 400 parts per million - just because it's a big round number.
"If there is a rate change and we are looking at an increase of 2.5ppm a
year, we'll cross that in 2015 instead of 2030. It brings the political
threshold nearer for business and government."
He said: "If there is a change in the rate, the likelihood is that we
have less time to take action. We are not taking the right action at the
moment. We are not cutting emissions and investing in low carbon
"We're watching the clock and the clock is beginning to tick faster, as
it seems to before a bomb goes off."
18 July 2004: The truth about global warming - it's the Sun that's to
8 March 2004: Downing St 'gags chief adviser on global warming'
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