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You are here: Home / Environmental topics / Climate change / FAQ / Are the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the industrial era caused by human activities?

Are the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the industrial era caused by human activities?

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Yes, the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases during the industrial era are caused by human activities. In fact, the observed increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations does not reveal the full extent of human emissions in that it accounts for only 55% of the CO2 released by human activity since 1959. The rest has been taken up by plants on land and by the oceans. In all cases, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and their increases, are determined by the balance between sources (emissions of the gas from human activities and natural systems) and sinks (the removal of the gas from the atmosphere by conversion to a different chemical compound).

Fossil fuel combustion (plus a smaller contribution from cement manufacture) is responsible for more than 75% of human-caused CO2 emissions. Land use change (primarily deforestation) is responsible for the remainder.
For methane, another important greenhouse gas, emissions generated by human activities exceeded natural emissions over the last 25 years.

For nitrous oxide, emissions generated by human activities are equal to natural emissions to the atmosphere.

Most of the long-lived halogen-containing gases (such as chloro-fluorcarbons) are manufactured by humans, and were not present in the atmosphere before the industrial era.

On average, present-day tropospheric ozone has increased 38% since pre-industrial times, and the increase results from atmospheric reactions of short-lived pollutants emitted by human activity.

The concentration of CO2 is now 379 parts per million (ppm) and methane is greater than 1,774 parts per billion (ppb), both very likely much higher than any time in at least 650 kyr (during which CO2 remained between 180 and 300 ppm and methane between 320 and 790 ppb). The recent rate of change is dramatic and unprecedented; increases in CO2 never exceeded 30 ppm in 1 kyr – yet now CO2 has risen by 30 ppm in just the last 17 years.

For more information, see FAQ 7.1, extracted from Chapter 7 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

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