Is 400 PPM Actually The Most Important Metric Ever For Cars?

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NASA's famous 'Blue marble' image of Earth (Wikimedia commons)

NASA's famous 'Blue marble' image of Earth (Wikimedia commons)

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You won't have been able to feel it, but on Friday the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit a milestone amount.

For the first time in recorded history, CO2 levels averaged 400 parts per million (ppm), or 0.04 percent, at a monitoring station on Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

And, say scientists, it's very much down to the way we live: our gadgets, our homes ... and our cars.

400 ppm is a significantly higher average than at any other point since records began half a century ago, and it's a much higher level than readings taken from air bubbles trapped in millenia-old ice.

According to The New York Times, Antarctic ice cores going back 800,000 years contain air bubbles with measurements between 180 and 280 ppm, correlating with cool and warm periods in the earth's history.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps the sun's heat, warming the planet and affecting the climate--so as the readings show, higher concentrations have a measurable effect on average global temperatures.

Levels have risen rapidly in the last 50 years or so.

When measurements began at Mauna Loa in the late 1950s, CO2 was at 315 ppm. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was nearer the 280 ppm limit.

Are cars to blame?

Cars are often scapegoat number one on the list of carbon dioxide sources, and with more than one billion on the planet, it's true their contribution is vast.

The huge strides automakers have made to increase fuel economy and reducing CO2 have certainly cleaned up modern vehicles--and other pollutants have gone down too.

But with countries with huge populations like India and China increasingly taking to four wheels, it's an uphill struggle to reduce CO2 overall.

And large countries are larger emitters of CO2--China and the U.S. together produce more than 40 percent of global CO2 emissions.

That isn't just from cars, of course. It includes power generation, air travel, sea travel, and more. Very little you own or use doesn't contribute in some way to the carbon load--and we simply live in a consumptive society.

What can be done?

400 ppm is essentially just another number. Its capacity to shock is psychological, since CO2 levels have been at equally troubling figures in the 390s ppm for some time now.

To illustrate: 200 mph is very fast, but so is 199 mph. It's mainly shocking on a symbolic level--and in comparison to historical levels.

However, as a symbolic number, it once again becomes news.

Fewer people will be able to ignore it, and there'll be added emphasis on reducing it--or, at least, preventing further rises.

The question has long since become--even if we were to fill our roads with zero-emission vehicles and radically boost efforts to clean up our power grids--whether we have the ability to prevent that number climbing past the point of no return.

Whatever that may be.


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Comments (12)
  1. Nice to see an ecology article here on GCR.

  2. Are cars to blame? Yes and no, cars do create CO2 but it's not the cars that are doing most of the CO2. The people who pollute the most CO2 is USA, China, India and Canada (mostly Alberta) China has like 700 (estimating) coal power plants and they need more to provide energy to their new capitalism ways (there isn't much communism in China, it's just a namesake.) India while at fault as well at least they are trying something different. Create electric or fuel alternative cars for cities, they don't cost a lot either. USA well it's kinda obvious why, the industries, the conservatism of fossil fuel and Texas

  3. I am counting down for the climate denier trolls to put in an appearance. 3...2...1...

  4. Yes, anthropogenic climate change sceptics are routinely called trolls by the believers aren't they? Of course the inherent intolerance to dissenting opinions is more typical for religion than science.

  5. I plannted some flowers and vegatables after I heard that news...

  6. I'm waiting to exhale

  7. heheh.

    The issue with all these talks on "Global warming" without background is really pointless and it is usually beyond the average person's understanding.

    Global warming is a "bad term" to start with. CO2 level flunctuates over time naturally. The issue is NOT where we are today, rather it is how fast the level of CO2 changes due to our activity. Plants and animal naturally will adopt to their new environment when enough time is given. However, if climate changes too quickly, our ecosystem is at risk to support our population on this planet.

    One of the direct result of "global warming" is actually ice age. But most people won't understand that...

    We should just call it "accelerated climate change by human activities".

  8. Agreed Xiaolong, Global Warming as a term conjures the wrong image for many. However, it's technically accurate too, so it's the best term - though as you say, it's the rate of warming which is the actual issue.

  9. Another problem with the term of "warming" is that someone will always say in location xxx that temperature has dropped so all that talk of "global warming" is just BS. when in fact, the "average" temperature across global over the years have risen. But that requires statistical understanding. Way beyond what an "average" human being is capable of...

  10. In 1960 there were ~3000 million people on Earth. Now we have ~7000 million people on Earth. More than double in 50 years. Everyone of them emits carbon dioxide as well as methane gas, some more than others. The Earth has been in a warming trend since the end of the last ice age. At some point there will be another ice age, according to many researchers. Unfortunately, we won't know for many years whether we are entering a new ice age or just continuing with the current warming trend. What do you think, Li?

  11. The amount of CO2 you and I emit per day is far smaller than what a F150 would do in about 40 hours of driving per day.

    We will enter ICE age eventually, it is all about the speed of which will happen and whether we can adopt to it or NOT, JOHNSON...

  12. Clear-cutting amazon and other forests for farming is another negative for CO2 creation and ongoing sequester. Isn't about 1/2 the CO2 sequestration of the world done by plankton in the seas? They absorb it and eventually die and drop to the bottom of the ocean. Over time, you end up with oil deposits.

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