Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-2-en
Also known as: CSI 013 , CLIM 052
Created 21 Jan 2019 Published 20 Mar 2019 Last modified 20 Mar 2019
22 min read
The annual average concentration of CO 2 , the most significant anthropogenic greenhouse gas, increased to 403 and 405 parts per million (ppm) in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The total concentration of all greenhouse gases, including cooling aerosols, reached a value of 449 ppm in CO 2 equivalents in 2016 — an increase of more than 4 ppm compared with 2015, and 33 ppm more than 10 years ago.  If the concentrations of the different greenhouse gases continue to increase at current rates, the peak concentration levels required to stay below a temperature increase of 1.5 °C  above pre-industrial levels, could be reached within the next 5-16 years. Peak concentration required to stay below a maximum 2 °C temperature increase could be reached in 17-40 years.  Given the increasing concentration levels, negative emissions may become important to increase the probability of remaining below the Paris temperature objectives.

Key messages

  • The annual average concentration of CO2, the most significant anthropogenic greenhouse gas, increased to 403 and 405 parts per million (ppm) in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
  • The total concentration of all greenhouse gases, including cooling aerosols, reached a value of 449 ppm in CO2 equivalents in 2016 — an increase of more than 4 ppm compared with 2015, and 33 ppm more than 10 years ago. 
  • If the concentrations of the different greenhouse gases continue to increase at current rates, the peak concentration levels required to stay below a temperature increase of 1.5 °C  above pre-industrial levels, could be reached within the next 5-16 years. Peak concentration required to stay below a maximum 2 °C temperature increase could be reached in 17-40 years. 
  • Given the increasing concentration levels, negative emissions may become important to increase the probability of remaining below the Paris temperature objectives.

How are atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases developing compared with levels consistent with limiting the increase in global mean temperature to 2 °C or even 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels?

Peak and 2100 concentration levels of total greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere consistent with keeping global average temperature increase below 1.5 (left) and 2 °C (right), for various probability levels

Note: The numer of years within which the peak concentrations levels could become exceeded are provided by the purple arrows, given the trend of the past 10 years of the total greenhouse gas concentration (based on IPCC, 2018)

Data source:
Downloads and more info

Contribution of the various greenhouse gases included in the Kyoto and Montreal protocols to the overall forcing

Pie charts
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Table
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Trends in atmospheric concentrations of CO2, CH4 and N2O

Chart
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Table
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Introduction

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have the ability to affect the radiation balance on Earth and are an important determinant of the global climate. Without these gases, the global average temperature would be about 32 ºC lower than it is today.

Greenhouse gas concentration levels in the atmosphere have increased during the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century, mainly as a result of human activities related to the use of fossil fuels (e.g. for power generation and transport), agricultural activities and land-use change (mainly deforestation) (IPCC, 2013, see also Carbon Budget at Global Carbon Project, www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/index.htm). The increase has been particularly rapid since 1950. Around 1970, the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere reached a level of 50 ppm above the pre-industrial level of more than 200 years ago. The second increase of 50 ppm took only around 30 years and the increase in the last 10 years was about 20 ppm. To evaluate greenhouse gas concentration levels in the atmosphere in relation to temperature change, it is important to consider all gases, i.e. the long-living greenhouse gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol, those under the Montreal Protocol (direct and indirect), as well as ozone, water vapour and aerosols (IPCC, 2013).

Greenhouse gases and their inclusion in international legislation

Greenhouse gases can intercept solar radiation and, thus, affect the climate system. In order to control emissions of such gases, many of them are included within multiple international agreements, including the UNEP Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987) and the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, which aims to limit global warming (1997).

  • Greenhouse gases included in the Kyoto Protocol (KPG) are: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and three (groups of) fluorinated gases (HFC, PFC, SF6)
  • Greenhouse gases in the Montreal Protocol (MPG) cover three other groups of fluorinated gases: CFCs, HCFCs and CH3CCl3
  • In addition, there are other forcing agents and greenhouse gases that are not included in global treaties but are dealt with at a regional level (e.g. under the UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution), here called non-protocol gases (NPG), including tropospheric ozone (O3), aerosols such as black carbon, sulphate and water vapour.

 

Total greenhouse gas concentration and its relevance

Considering all greenhouse gases, the total CO2 equivalent concentration reached a level of 449 ppm CO2e in 2016, which was an increase of 4 ppm compared with 2015, and 33 ppm more than in 2007 (Figure 1).

The observed CO2 equivalent concentration levels can be evaluated in light of the 2015 Climate Agreement in Paris. The objective of this agreement is ‘to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels’ (UNFCCC, 2015). Table 1 depicts both the peak and 2100 concentration levels of all greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, which are consistent with keeping the global average temperature increase below 1.5 °C and 2 °C, for various probability levels (based on IPCC, 2014, 2018). We use here peak concentration and 2100 concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Peak concentration is associated with temporary overshoot of the global average temperature profile, followed by a decrease later in the century (2100 concentration). The possibility for a decrease of the concentration is dependent on the emission decrease, eventually with negative emissions through CO2 removal (through afforestation programs or combining bio-energy with carbon capture and storage). How larger the overshoot during this century, how more the concentration has to drop afterwards. Such a pathway is more and more a determinant of the probability of remaining below a particular temperature goal (IPCC, 2018). Figure 2 and Table 1 show that a 50 % probability (‘about as likely as not’) of keeping the increase in the global average temperature below 1.5 °C corresponds with a peak concentration level of 485 and 525 ppm CO2 equivalent, depending on allowing a temperature overshoot (see Annex 2 for uncertainty ranges). Afterwards the contentration needs to return to 440 and 425 ppm in 2100, comparable or even lower than the concentration observed in 2016 (based on IPCC, 2018).

Given the current total concentration of 449 ppm and the 2007–2016 trend of annual increases in total greenhouse gas concentrations (i.e. 3.3 ppm per year), the peak concentration could be reached in about 11-23  years, again depending on whether a temperature overshoot is allowed or not (Figure 2). Likewise, when assuming a 50 % probability of keeping the increase in the global average temperature below 2 °C, the peak concentration could be reached in about 28-34 years (Figure 2). Similar analysis can be done assuming higher (e.g. >67 %) or lower (e.g. <33 %) probability levels of staying below +1.5 oC and +2 oC (Table 1, Figure 2).



Table 1. Peak and 2100 concentration levels of total greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere consistent with keeping the global average temperature increase below 1.5 and 2 °C, for various probability levels. The ranges are given in brackets, (all based on IPCC, 2014, 2018)

 

Probablity of staying below target (%)Temperature overshoot?1.5 oC2.0 oC
Peak concentration Concentration in 2100 Peak concentration Concentration in 2100
> 67 (likely) No

467

(445-485)

411

(390-430)

505

(470-540)

480

(460-500)

Yes

485

(469-506)

405

(385-427)

520

(505-540)

465

(440-480)

50 (about as likely as not)

(33-67)
No

485

(460-500)

440

(430-445)

540

(510-560)

520

(500-535)

Yes

525

(520-540)

425

(410-435)

560

(540-575)

505

(480-530)

< 33 (unlikely) No

500

(480-530)

470

(445-580)

580

(550-615)

570

(540-600)

Yes

535

(510-550)

450

(425-460)

600

(560-630)

540

(505-580)


Long-term data sets on tropospheric ozone concentrations are difficult to develop because of the scarcity of representative observation sites with long records and the large spatial heterogeneity (IPCC, 2013). Furthermore, note that for the presented total equivalent greenhouse gas concentration values, new estimates on the climate forcing of aerosols have been used (IPCC, 2013). Overall, aerosols have a cooling effect, although certain aerosols (e.g. black carbon) have a warming effect. The cooling effect is now estimated to be 0.75 W/m2, which is 0.4 W/m2 smaller (i.e.  less cooling) than previously thought, mainly because of the greater warming potential of black carbon (see also the section on uncertainty). The forcing trend of these aerosols is slightly decreasing (=less cooling).

Relevance of different gases
An assessment of the contribution from the various groups of greenhouse gases has shown that the NPGs had a net cooling effect of about 38 ppm CO2e in 2016 and, as such. This compensates for about 14 % of the current forcing induced by the KPGs and MPGs. The MPGs, as a group, contributed about 9 % to current forcing in 2016 (Figure 3). Concentration levels of these gases peaked around 2000 and have been declining ever since, because of natural removal processes (IPCC, 2013). Most of the forcing is caused by KPGs, especially CO2.


Concentrations of individual gases

The average annual CO2 concentration level reached 403 and 405 ppm in 2016 and 2017, respectively (Figure 4). This is an increase of more than 127 ppm (+143 %), compared with pre-industrial levels (i.e. before 1800) (NOAA, 2018). Overall, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere exceed the range of concentration levels as recorded in ice cores over the past 800,000 years (IPCC, 2013). 

The average annual concentration level of methane (CH4) — the second most significant greenhouse gas — reached a level of 1 842 parts per billion (ppb) in 2016, an increase of a factor of 2.4, compared with pre-industrial levels, and of about 8 ppb compared with 2015 (Figure 4). Incomplete data for 2017 show a continuation of the increase up to 1 852 ppb. CH4 concentration levels in the atmosphere were relatively stable over the 2000–2006 period, but have been steadily increasing again since 2007; by 6.6 ppb per year over the last decade. Different reasons are given for the increase after 2017, partly related to fossil fuel use and partly to biogenic sources (Saunois et al, 2016). Biogenic methane sources are, for example, wetlands (Poulter et al, 2017; Zhang et al, 2017) and agriculture, including rice paddies (Nisbet et al, 2016). Furthermore, anthropogenic sources as a result of fossil fuel use at mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere play an increasing role (WMO, 2016). Finally, biomass burning and wildfires have contributed to the observed increase in the atmospheric concentration of CH4, although the relevance has decreased over time (Worden et al, 2017).

The nitrous oxide (N2O) concentration level was 329 ppb in 2016, 121 % above the pre-industrial level (Figure 4). Data for 2017, although not yet complete, indicate a concentration of 330 ppb. The rate of change is slightly increasing over the past 20 years from 0.6 ppb per year to 0.9 ppm per year.

The group of fluorinated gases (F gases) within the scope of the Kyoto Protocol can be categorised as HFCs, PFCs and SF6. The group of HFCs is particularly broad. The concentration levels of these F-gases have increased substantially over recent decades. Their contribution to the climate forcing is currently still limited, although steadily increasing (from 0.5 % in 1990 to 0.8 % in 2004 and 1.4 % in 2016, see Figure 3). Their contribution is expected to continuously increase in the near future, because of the long lifetimes of most F-gases (in some cases more than 1 000 years) and to the increase in the emissions of new HFCs, such as HFC-134a (a substitute of CFCs, as they do not have an ozone depleting impact in the stratosphere).


 

 

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

This indicator shows the observed trends in greenhouse gas concentrations. Greenhouse gases differ in the way they affect the climate system. In order to sum the effects of the individual greenhouse gases and other forcing agents in the atmosphere, the so-called 'greenhouse gas equivalent concentration' has been defined. This is the concentration of CO2 that would cause the same amount of radiative forcing as a mixture of CO2 and other forcing agents (greenhouse gases and aerosols). The forcing is expressed here in CO2-equivalent concentrations, rather than watts per square meter (W/m2), because they are more easily understood by the general public. For a more detailed assessment of radiative forcing expressed in W/m2, the reader is referred to IPCC (2013).

Global average annual concentrations are presented here. Although greenhouse gases are mainly emitted in the northern hemisphere, the use of global average values is considered justified, because the atmospheric lifetime of most greenhouse gases is long compared with the timescales of global atmospheric mixing. This leads to a rather uniform mixture around the globe. The exceptions are ozone and aerosols. However, as described earlier, these gases are less relevant in the long term.

Units

Atmospheric concentration is measured in parts per million COequivalents (ppm CO2e).


Policy context and targets

Context description

The overall objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is 'to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system' (UNFCCC, 1993). Both at global level (UNFCCC, 2009) and EU levels (October 2008 Environment Council conclusions), this 'dangerous anthropogenic interference' has been recognised in an ambition to keep the long-term global average temperature rise below 2 °C, compared with pre-industrial levels. In December 2015, the Paris Agreement strengthened this by stating its objective as 'holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels' (UNFCC, 2015).

CO2 equivalent concentrations can be defined that correspond to these and other temperature increases. Note that these temperature increases represent a specific long-term equilibrium warming. The equilibrium climate sensitivity is defined as the change in global mean temperature, T2x, that results when the climate system, or a climate model, attains a new equilibrium with the forcing change, F2x, resulting from a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration (IPCC, 2013).

Studies have been done to assess the probability of achieving this objective. These include both the 1.5 °C and 2 °C targets (above pre-industrial levels) in relation to various stabilisation levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Meinshausen et al., 2009, 2011; Van Vuuren et al., 2011; IPCC, 2014; IPCC, 2018, PBL (2017), which would result in the main objective of the COP21Paris agreement being achieved (see also Table 1).

From estimates on climate sensitivity, it can be derived that the concentration of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — including ozone, water vapour and aerosols — would need to remain below the range of 430-480 (average 450) ppm CO2e to achieve a 50 % probability of keeping the increase in global mean temperature below 1.5 °C. This concentration is close to the one currently observed. The atmospheric concentration of all greenhouse gases that would be consistent with a maximum temperature increase of 2 °C is between 480 ppm and 530 ppm CO2e. Respectively, these figures give a 67 % and <33 % probability of staying below these temperature thresholds (see Table 1). 

Targets

In 1992, countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the objective of which is to ‘achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system' (United Nations, 1992). This set the basis to cooperatively consider options for limiting average global temperature increases. Continuous discussions under the UNFCCC led to the adoption, in 1997, of the Kyoto Protocol[2], which legally binds developed countries to achieving greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

In 2010, the international community agreed on the need to reduce emissions in order to prevent global temperature increases from exceeding 2 °C compared with pre-industrial levels[3] (no more than 1 °C above today's level). Scenarios consistent with this target show global emission reductions of 40-70 % by 2050, compared with 2010 levels (i.e. 40-60 % for scenarios with negative emissions, and 60-70 % for scenarios without negative emissions).[4]

More than 90 countries agreed to take on mitigation commitments until 2020, including the major developed and developing nations. The European Union (EU) and a small additional number of developed countries made their commitments under the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period running from 2013 to 2020.[5] To secure the chance to stay below 2 °C, the international community has decided to work towards an international climate agreement for the period after 2020, which should be applicable to all. Such a new global agreement was concluded at the COP21 meeting in Paris, in November 2015. The sum of the proposed emission reductions for all countries would still be insufficient to meet the target (UN Gap analysis).

[1] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations (9 May 1992) New York, accessed 3 July 2014.

[2] Kyoto Protocol, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accessed 3 July 2014.

[3] Decision 1/CP.16: The Cancun Agreements: Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention, accessed 3 July 2014.

[4] IPCC (2014): Summary for Policymakers, In: Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, accessed 3 July 2014.

[5] Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, Doha (8 December 2012), accessed 27 August 2014. 

Related policy documents

  • Council Decision (2002/358/EC) of 25 April 2002
    Council Decision (2002/358/EC) of 25 April 2002 concerning the approval, on behalf of the European Community, of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the joint fulfilment of commitments thereunder.
  • Greenhouse gas monitoring mechanism Decision
    Decision No 280/2004/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 concerning a mechanism for monitoring Community greenhouse gas emissions and for implementing the Kyoto Protocol
  • Paris Agreement
    The Paris Agreement. Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-first session, held in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015.

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

The trends in global average concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are taken directly from NOAA (NOAA, 2015, see also www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/global.html). Global average concentration values for the other gases are mainly based on AGAGE figures (2014) (see agage.eas.gatech.edu/index.htm). These global figures were derived by averaging the data from four observatory stations across the world, equally distributed over the northern and southern hemispheres.

Radiative forcings are calculated using an approximate equation according to IPCC (2013), based on the observed atmospheric concentrations and using radiative efficiencies for CO2, CH4, N2O, ozone (both stratospheric and tropospheric) and vapour. IPCC (2013) estimates were also used for the radiative forcing of aerosols between 1970 and 2013.

The equations used to compute the contribution of individual gases are presented below: 

Trace gas

Parameterisation, radiative forcing, change in forcing (F) (Wm-2)

Constants (IPCC, 2013, Butler, 2009)

CO2

change in F = alpha ln (C/C0)

C and C0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations (ppm) of CO2, respectively

alpha = 5.35

CH4

change in F = alpha (sq. root of M - sq. root of M0 ) - (f (M,N0) - f (M0,N0))

where 

f (M,N)= 0.47 ln [1+2.01*10-5 (MN)0.75 + 5.31*10-15 M(MN)1.52]

M and M0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations (ppb) of CH4, respectively; N and N0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations (ppb) of N2O, respectively.

alpha = 0.036

N2O

change in F = alpha (sq. root of N - sq. root of N0 ) - (f (M0,N) - f (M0,N0))

 

where 

 

f (M,N)= 0.47 ln [1+2.01*10-5 (MN)0.75 + 5.31*10-15 M(MN)1.52]

M and M0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations of CH4, respectively; N and N0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations of N2O, respectively.

alpha = 0.12

HFC, PFC & SF6

change in F = alpha (X-X0)

 X and X0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations (ppb) of gas X, respectively.

Values for alpha depend on molecules (see below), taken from WMO, 2002.

 A similar approach was applied for the Montreal Protocol gases (i.e. CFCs and HCFCs):

CFCs and HCFCs

change in F = alpha (X-X0)

 X and X0 are the current and pre-industrial concentrations (ppb) of gas X, respectively.

Values for alpha depending on molecule (see below), taken from WMO, 2002.

Overview of used alpha values for chlorine Kyoto and Montreal Gases (also see CDIAC):

Kyoto gases

Alpha values

Montreal gases

Alpha values

HFC-23

0.16

CFC-11

0.25

HFC-134a

0.159

CFC-12

0.32

CF4

0.116

CFC-13

0.25

C2F6

0.26

CFC-113

0.3

SF6

0.52

CFC-114

0.31

 HFC-23

0.16

CFC-115

0.18

 

 

HCFC-22

0.2

 

 

HCFC-141

0.14

 

 

HCFC-142

0.163

 

 

CCl

0.13

 

 

CH4CC

0.01

 

 

CH4CCl3

0.06

 

 

CH3Br

0.05

In calculating the radiative forcing (and accompanying concentration levels) of the Montreal Protocol gases, the effect of ozone depleting substances on the stratospheric ozone layer was also considered. A factor of -0.154 for correcting the forcing of Montreal Protocol gases, based on IPCC (2013) (= -0.05 W/m2 or 10 ppm in 2015), was used. 

To quantify the total concentration of all greenhouse gases, the forcing of tropospheric ozone, water vapour in the atmosphere, cloud interaction, changes in albedo (e.g. due to black carbon) and the direct effects of multiple aerosols were added. Due to uncertainties in the measurements and the large inter-annual and seasonal variation, forcing for tropospheric ozone, water vapour and land-use change was kept constant over the years at a respective 0.4, 0.07 (IPCC, 2013, p. 696) and 0.15 W/m2 (IPCC, 2013, p. 698).

For aerosols, (i) figures based on the 2013 IPCC report and subsequent literature were used; (ii) the methodology for the period from 1970 to 2016 was changed, for example, the forcing of black carbon (BC) from fossil fuel and biofuel use has increased as a result of increased emissions in especially East and Southeast Asia. In this new methodology we firstly defined RF figures for 2011 for sulphate, BC, OC, nitrate and other forcers (= sum of mineral dust, cloud interaction, and contrails), based on IPCC (2013, Fig. 8.17, pg. 698). These figures are provided in the table below. Then we calculated the RF for these five groups back to 1970. For sulphate, historical emission data from Klimont et al. (2013) and IPCC (2013, Figure 8.8, p. 683) were used. For BC, OC and nitrate, we used the historical RF figures as given by the IPCC (Figure 8.8, p. 683) and later literature (Wang et al., 2014; Wang et al., 2016, Nazarenko et al., 2017). Note that here the forcing of biomass burning was kept to zero, as it is balanced by a positive forcing due to BC and negative forcing from OC (see also IPCC, 2013, Table 8.4).

Calculated radiative forcing for multiple aerosols for some years in the past (all in W/m2) is presented below.

Gas (group)

2016

2000

1990

1970

Sulphate

-0.37

-0.42

-0.44

-0.36

BC

0.64

0.61

0.58

0.45

OC (incl. sec.)

-0.32

-0.31

-0.30

-0.27

Nitrate

-0.11

-0.11

-0.11

-0.05

Other gases

-0.59

-0.61

-0.61

-0.61

Total

-0.75

-0.84

-0.87

-0.84

Methodology for gap filling

If measurement data from a particular station are missing for a certain year, the global trend is derived from data available from other stations. 

Methodology references

  • CDIAC http://agage.eas.gatech.edu/data_archive/agage/gc-ms-medusa/monthly/ for CFC-113 HCFC-22, HCFC-141b, HCFC-142b HFC-125, HFC-134a, HFC-152a, HFC-365mfc, HFC-23 Halon-1211, Halon-1301 CH3Cl, CH2Cl2, CHCl3, CH3Br CH3CCl3, CHClCCl2, CCl2CCl2 SF6, SO2F2 PFC-14, PFC-116, PFC-218 HFC-227ea HFC-236fa HFC-245fa
  • CDIAC   http://agage.eas.gatech.edu/data_archive/agage/gc-md/monthly/ for CH 4 , N 2 O, CO, H 2 , CFC-11, CFC-12, CH3CCl3, CCl4, CFC-113, and CHCl3. 
  • IPCC (2007) Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis.  (eds.) Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen Z, Marquis M, Averyt K, Tignor MMB & Miller HL,. Working Group 1 Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Technical Summary and Chapter 10 (Global Climate Projections)
  • WMO (2002) Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2002, Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project–Report No. 47, World Meteorological Organization), Geneva, Switzerland
  • IPCC (2013) Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group 1 Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Technical Summary and Chapter 2.

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

Global average concentrations since approximately 1980 are determined by averaging measurements from several ground-station networks (SIO, NOAA/CMDL, ALE/GAGE/AGAGE), with each network consisting of several stations distributed across the globe.

Absolute accuracies of global average annual concentrations are around 1 % for CO2, CH4, N2O and CFCs; for HFCs, PFCs, and SF6, absolute accuracies are between 10 % and 20%. The largest uncertainties have been determined for the concentration of different aerosols like sulphur, and black and organic carbon. The uncertainty in the trend of these aerosols could be 50-60 % (IPCC, 2013).

Radiative forcing is calculated using parameterisations that relate the measured concentrations of greenhouse gases to radiative forcing. The overall uncertainty in radiative forcing calculations is shown in the tables below (given in 10 % and 90 % confidence ranges)

 

Best estimate RF values from 1750 to 2011(and 10 % and 90 % confidence ranges) (source: IPCC, 2013, Chapter 8, figures TS7 & SPM5)

Group

Forcers

Best estimate

10 %

90 %

Kyoto

CO2

1.82

1.63

2.01

 

CH4

0.49

0.44

0.54

 

N2O

0.18

0.15

0.21

 

HFC, PFCs, SF6

0.03

0.027

0.033

Montreal

Montreal F-gases

0.27

0.11

0.41

Non-protocol

Tropospheric O3

0.4

0.2

0.6

 

Sulfate aerosols

-0.40

-0.60

-0.20

 

Nitrate aerosols

-0.11

-0.19

0.03

 

Black carbon

0.64

0.22

1.02

 

Organic carbon

-0.32

-0.42

-0.22

 

Cloud Interaction

-0.55

-1.1

0.00

 

 Land use

-0.15

-0.25

-0.05

 

Vapour 

0.07

0.02

0.12

 

Mineral dust

-0.10

-0.30

0.10

 

Air contrails

0.05

0.00

0.10 

 

Total

2.33

-0.06

4.70

Another way of showing the effect of uncertainties on the total greenhouse gas concentration is that of using alternative values for the forcing of aerosols. New estimates of this forcing have been presented in previous years (IPCC, 2013). The cooling effect of aerosols is now estimated to be 0.4 W/m2 smaller (= less cooling) than reported in previous years, mainly due to the greater warming potential of black carbon. When using these older values, the total greenhouse gas concentration in 2016 was estimated to be about 36 ppm lower than when using the more recent figures. Given a similar trend in time, this lower concentration level would imply an additional 10 years before the various critical concentration levels (Table 1) would be reached.

Overall, this shows the effect of a lower climate sensitivity (Rogelj et al., 2014) and higher heat uptake by the oceans (Doney et al., 2014). An important question here is whether this increased heat uptake will prove to be structural, over time. 

Data sets uncertainty

Comparability of direct measurements is good. Although methods for calculating radiative forcing and CO2e are expected to be further improved, any update of these methods will be applied to the complete data set covering all years, so this will not affect the comparability of the indicator over time. 

Rationale uncertainty

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are a well-established indicator of changes in atmospheric composition, which causes changes in the global climate system. 

Data sources

Metadata

Topics:

information.png Tags:
,
DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 013
  • CLIM 052
Temporal coverage:
information.png Geographic coverage:

Geographical areas

Dates

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year

EEA Contact Info

John Van Aardenne
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