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Global warming accelerates as emissions hit new records

Global warming accelerates as emissions hit new records

16-12-2019 | Stunning statistics
Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are higher than ever before, two new studies have found.

Speed read

  • Concentrations of CO2 hit record levels and are still rising
  • Emissions up by 4% since the Paris Agreement was signed
  • Investors must adapt strategies before the policy response

What has happened?

The World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest report says concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 407.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2018, up from 405.5 ppm a year previously. The 0.57% increase in CO2 concentration was above the average for the last 10 years and is 47% above the pre-industrial level of 1750.

Separately, the Global Carbon Project's annual analysis of emission trends suggests that CO2 levels will go up by 0.6% in 2019. Its researchers say emissions continue to rise, despite a drop in the global use of coal as coal-fired power stations are gradually phased out. This is due to continuing strong growth in the use of oil and gas instead.

Other greenhouse gases also contribute to global warming. Levels of methane produced by farm animals are now at 259% of the pre-industrial level, the WMO report shows. The rise in methane seen in 2018 was higher than both the previous annual rate and the 10-year average. Levels of nitrous oxide, emitted from both natural and human sources such as fertilizers used in farming, is now 23% higher than in 1750.

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Why is it important?

The rising levels of these greenhouse gases are having an escalating effect on climate change, with a 43% increase in the warming effect since 1990. The biggest contributor of emissions remains the burning of fossil fuels such as in coal-fired power plants (40%), or the petrol that fuels the world’s 1.25 billion vehicles (32%).

Atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases can be curtailed by the world’s trees, which absorb CO2 and replace it with oxygen. However, record levels of emissions are being matched by record levels of deforestation, including uncontrolled burning in the Amazon and deadly forest fires in Australia and California.

More worryingly, the reports show that CO2 emissions have risen by 4% since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, or an average of 1% per year. The agreement seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, meaning that the world effectively become carbon neutral by 2030. The International Panel on Climate Change warned earlier this year that sea levels will rise by over a meter before 2100 unless global warming is reduced.

What does it mean for investors?

“The significance of climate change and its impact on society are increasingly obvious, as is the fact that the current response is severely deficient, says Jacob Messina, Head of Sustainable Investing Research at RobecoSAM.

“As a result, the probability of a wave of major policy responses is increasing, and the horizon in which we expect it is shortening. Investors have two critical roles to play in this paradigm.”

“First, they can engage with companies, policymakers and clients to drive the shift to a zero-carbon economy. Second, by adapting their investment strategies now, they can safeguard their clients’ assets and help ensure they meet their financial and sustainability goals”.

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