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Greenhouse gas pollution trapped 49% more heat in 2021 than in 1990

Iconic image of the Earth seen from space. The planet floats against a black void and is covered with swirls of white, green, blue and brown, representing land masses, forests, mountains, seas, and clouds.
Image Credit: NASA

New research from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency released earlier this week shows that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has made the world 50% hotter than it was thirty years ago.

The NOAA's Annual Greenhouse Gas Index tracks increases in the warming influence of human emissions of heat-trapping gases, and uses 1990 as its baseline, because that was when the first global environmental accords -- the Kyoto Protocols were established.

The gases that this survey tracks include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons, which are emitted from burning fossil fuels and manufacturing chemicals and industrial materials.

“The AGGI tells us the rate at which we are driving global warming,” said Ariel Stein, the acting director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, in a statement. “Our measurements show the primary gases responsible for climate change continue rising rapidly, even as the damage caused by climate change becomes more and more clear. The scientific conclusion that humans are responsible for their increase is irrefutable.”

According to the survey the roughly 36 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide that are spewed into the atmosphere each year from cars, factories, power plants, deforestation and agriculture are creating a much, much hotter planet.

And the amounts of CO2 that are currently in the atmosphere will stick around for another 1,000 years unless we do something about them. It's why carbon removal has been included as an important solution to the warming crisis.

NOAA measurements showed that the average concentration of CO2 around the world was 414.7 parts per million, with the amount of CO23 increasing by about 2.6 parts per million every year for the past decade.

“CO2 is the main player because it stays in the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years and it is by far the largest contributor to global warming,” said GML Senior Scientist Pieter Tans, in a statement. “Eliminating CO2 pollution has to be front and center in any efforts to deal with climate change.”

Other than CO2 the biggest contributor to global warming is methane -- and around the world more of it is being emitted than ever before, according to the scientists at the NOAA.

Part of the problem, is that the amount of methane reaching the atmosphere is increasing and scientists think that warming could be causing geological stores of the gas -- in wetlands, farmlands, forests, and landfills -- to release more of it.

That'd be seriously problematic and something that humans can do little to stop, according to Xin Lan, a researcher in the NOAA's Global Monitoring Lab.

“We should absolutely target man-made methane emissions - especially those from fossil fuel - because it is technologically feasible to control them,” said Xin Lan, a CIRES scientist working in the Global Monitoring Lab. “If wetlands are giving off more methane because of warming and changes in global precipitation caused by rising CO levels , that's something we can't control directly. And that would be very concerning.”

FootPrint Coalition is an investor in a company called Crusoe Energy, which is taking gas wells that have been abandoned and converting them into data centers to reclaim nearly 100% of the emissions that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere.

Finally, there's a problem with nitrous oxide. Known as laughing gas and previously used as an anesthetic, the gas is released from the excessive use of fertilizer to improve farmers' crop yields. “We can find alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels,” said Stephen Montzka, the GML scientist who leads the AGGI report each year, “but cutting emissions associated with producing food is a very difficult task."

Here too, there are technology companies trying to find solutions. Some of FootPrint Coalition's co-investors like LowerCarbon Capital, S2G Ventures, and Breakthrough Energy Ventures are backing businesses that replace chemical fertilizer with bacteria designed to encourage plant health and crop growth.

These are companies like Pivot Bio, Kula Bio, Sound Ag, and Joyn Bio, which have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to tackle the problem.

The three gases -- carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide -- account for about 96% of the excess heat that's been trapped in the atmosphere since the discovery and colonization of the Americas began in earnest in 1750.

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