Carbon Dioxide Reaches New Peaks in Atmosphere, Ratcheting Up Need to Act

June 24, 2021

Government scientists have announced the distressing news that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal element warming Earth’s climate, was measured in Hawaii last month at its highest level since accurate measurements began 63 years ago.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, along with scientists in Hawaii from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, shared their findings earlier this month.

The scientists say that the highest monthly mean CO2 value of the year occurs in May, just before plants in the northern hemisphere start to remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere during the growing season. In the northern fall, winter, and early spring, plants and soils give off CO2 causing levels to rise through May. Last month’s reading – 419 parts per million – was said by researchers to be 50 percent higher than when the industrial age began.

The Mauna Loa observatory is a benchmark sampling location for CO2, being ideally situated for testing well-mixed air that is undisturbed by the influence of local pollution sources or vegetation. Experts say the observatory produces measurements that represent the average state of the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere.

Experts say it is still not too late to reverse this damaging trend, but that it will require that we take some formidable steps to rachet up our response to the harm being done to our planet.

SfL has long advocated policies and practices that are giving agriculture and forestry stakeholders the tools that can help stem climate change while securing a safe and secure supply of food, feed and fiber.

For too long, U.S. agriculture has taken a disproportionate amount of blame for the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that contribute to climate change. GHGs related to agriculture totaled 582 million metric tons in 2017 in the United States – less than 9 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions and, in fact, down 2 percent from a decade ago. d

Farmers and ranchers also contribute to carbon sequestration efforts through practices that manage and preserve healthy soils that can better retain carbon. Those practices can include no-till and conservation-till agriculture; rotational grazing (moving livestock around to designated fields); cover crops planted with the intent to prevent soil erosion after the primary crop has been harvested; science-based and specific application of inputs like fertilizer; and integrated crop-livestock systems.

Lawmakers can help agriculture in its efforts to both survive and help in the effort to stem the changes taking place in our climate, providing financial and technical assistance through federal initiatives, including USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).

In late 2019, SfL Co-Chair Fred Yoder shared with the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis a variety of benefits available through climate smart agriculture (CSA), an approach promoted by SfL that offers strategies to address climate challenges. He also reinforced the importance of the ag sector’s participation in developing useful policies, noting that the reason CSA is an effective strategy for engendering farmer participation and support is that the approach places farmers at the center of all climate discussions and decisions. The troubling assessment of NOAA officials showing the continuing growth of climate altering CO2 should represent a clarion call for policymakers to take serious action to stem the growth of emissions. SfL urges lawmakers to give farmers, ranchers and forestland owners the capability to optimize their role in the fight.

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