Rising temperatures

Upsetting a delicate balance

In the past the Earth's climate has changed as a result of natural causes in our atmosphere.

The changes we are witnessing and those that are predicted are largely due to human behaviour. We are burning fossil fuels, and heating up the planet at the same time. We blow ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year – 29 billion tonnes of it (2004) and rising – and this warms the globe.

Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been burning fossil fuels on a massive scale.

We use this energy, almost without care for the consequences, to run vehicles, heat homes, conduct business, and power factories.

Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 stored millions of years ago as oil, coal or natural gas. In the last 200 years we have burned a large part of these stores, resulting in an increase in CO2 in our atmosphere. The destruction of our forests also releases CO2 stored in trees and in the soil.

The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere thickens the 'greenhouse blanket', with the result that too much heat is trapped into the Earth's atmosphere. This causes global warming: global temperatures rise and cause climate change.

Looking at the numbers

Data from the World Resources Institute (WRI) show that humans have added 2.3 trillion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere in the last 200 years. Half of this amount was added in the last 30 years.

The largest absolute increase in CO2 emissions occurred in 2004, when burning fossil fuels alone added more than 28 billion tonnes to the atmosphere. Source: WRI, Navigating the numbers, based on data from IEA, EIA, Marland et al, and BP.

Overall, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 31% since 1750, i.e. since the Industrial Revolution.

CO2 emissions are now around 12 times higher than in 1900 as the world burns more and more coal, oil and gas for energy. A 1999 study by Mann et al. shows the dramatic increase in temperature in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 50 years. This well-known hockey stick curve has been validated by numerous other scientists.

Sea ice extent comparison at the Arctic - mimumum ice reach comparison between 1979 and 2008. / ©: NASA
Sea ice extent comparison at the Arctic - mimumum ice reach comparison between 1979 and 2008.
© NASA

Greenhouse gases rising since Industrial Revolution

CO2 is the most important gas causing climate change. Others include methane (CH4), nitrous dioxide (NO2), and several artificial gases (Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs); and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). These 6 groups are accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol.

Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Pre-industrial 2001
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) 280 ppm 368 ppm
Methane (CH4) 700 ppm 1745 ppb
Nitrous Dioxide (NO2) 270 ppb 314 ppb

Click here to view graph showing increase of main GHGs from 0 to 2005.

Source: IPCC, 2001a

ppm = parts per million, ppb = parts per billion

The (not too distant) future

We simply cannot continue pumping CO2 into the atmosphere without curbs and controls.

Even with the best case scenario for the increase in CO2 emissions it is predicted that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will reach double the level of before the Industrial Revolution by 2100.

The worst case scenario brings this doubling forward to 2045 – less than 40 years from now! The Fourth Assessment Report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates global temperature rises by the end of the century of between 1.1°C and 6.4°C.

WWF's solutions

WWF has projects around the world that are working on solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. Read more about our solutions.

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