World Meteorological Organization: CO2 levels surged to record high in 2016

Last Updated Oct 30, 2017 7:45 AM EDT

GENEVA -- The U.N. weather agency warned Monday that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increased at record-breaking speed last year.

World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said rapid cuts to CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gases are needed to avoid "dangerous temperature increases" by 2100 that would far surpass targets set in the Paris climate accord. Scientists say greenhouse gases are fueling climate change, and the impact is already being felt around the globe.

"We are actually moving in the wrong direction," Taalas said.

The latest WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released Monday, said a strong El Niño event and human activity contributed to the increase of CO2 concentrations to 403.3 parts per million last year, up from 400 in 2015.

The report notes that temperatures in strong El Niño years are typically warmer than average "and 2016's temperatures are consistent with that pattern." BBC News reports El Niño also impacts the amount of carbon in the atmosphere by causing droughts that cut the ability of plants and trees to absorb CO2.

Because of air bubbles preserved in ice in places like Greenland and Antarctica, researchers have reliable measurements of CO2 concentrations going back 800,000 years. Using those measurements, the bulletin said that the last time CO2 concentrations were at similar levels was three to five million years ago, when the sea level was 66 feet higher than today.

WMO says the report breaks ground by showing the "global picture" on carbon levels. It hopes that will contribute to debate at a major climate conference in Bonn, Germany, starting next week.