Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Based on analysis from NOAA’s Global Monitoring Lab, global average atmospheric carbon dioxide was 414.72 parts per million (“ppm” for short) in 2021, setting a new record high despite the continued economic drag from the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the jump of 2.58 ppm over 2021 amounts tied for 5th-highest annual increase in NOAA’s 63-year record.

LIne graph of monthly atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the 12-month running average

Carbon dioxide concentrations are rising mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy. Fossil fuels like coal and oil contain carbon that plants pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over many millions of years; we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred. Since the middle of the 20th century, annual emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased every decade, from an average of 3 billion tons of carbon (11 billion tons of carbon dioxide) a year in the 1960s to 9.5 billion tons of carbon (35 tons of carbon dioxide) per year in the 2010s, according to the Global Carbon Update 2021.

Carbon cycle experts estimate that natural “sinks”—processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere—on land and in the ocean absorbed the equivalent of about half of the carbon dioxide we emitted each year in the 2011-2020 decade. Because we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes can remove, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases every year.

The more we overshoot what natural processes can remove in a given year, the faster the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide rises. In the 1960s, the global growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide was roughly 0.8± 0.1 ppm per year. Over the next half century, the annual growth rate tripled, reaching 2.4 ppm per year during the 2010s. The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago. 

Line graph showing simultaneous increase of annual carbon emissions and global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrationcentrations

Why carbon dioxide matters

Carbon dioxide is Earth’s most important greenhouse gas: a gas that absorbs and radiates heat. Unlike oxygen or nitrogen (which make up most of our atmosphere), greenhouse gases absorb heat radiating from the Earth’s surface and re-release it in all directions—including back toward Earth’s surface. Without carbon dioxide, Earth’s natural greenhouse effect would be too weak to keep the average global surface temperature above freezing. By adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, people are supercharging the natural greenhouse effect, causing global temperature to rise. According to observations by the NOAA Global Monitoring Lab, in 2021 carbon dioxide alone was responsible for about two-thirds of the total heating influence of all human-produced greenhouse gases.

Another reason carbon dioxide is important in the Earth system is that it dissolves into the ocean like the fizz in a can of soda. It reacts with water molecules, producing carbonic acid and lowering the ocean’s pH (raising its acidity). Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the ocean’s surface waters has dropped from 8.21 to 8.10. This drop in pH is called ocean acidification.

macro photo of tiny ocean snail shells showing a healthy snail shell compared to one damaged by ocean acidification

Past and future carbon dioxide

Natural increases in carbon dioxide concentrations have periodically warmed Earth’s temperature during ice age cycles over the past million years or more. The warm episodes (interglacials) began with a small increase in incoming sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere due to variations in Earth’s orbit around the Sun and its axis of rotation. (For more details, see the “Milankovitch cycles and ice ages” section of our Climate change: incoming sunlight article.) That little bit of extra sunlight caused a little bit of warming. As the oceans warmed, they outgassed carbon dioxide—like a can of soda going flat in the heat of a summer day. The extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere greatly amplified the initial, solar-driven warming.

Based on air bubbles trapped in mile-thick ice cores and other paleoclimate evidence, we know that during the ice age cycles of the past million years or so, atmospheric carbon dioxide never exceeded 300 ppm. Before the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1700s, atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 ppm or less.

paleo-carbon dioxide graph - large

By the time continuous observations began at Mauna Loa Volcanic Observatory in 1958, global atmospheric carbon dioxide was already 315 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in human history. In fact, the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period, when global surface temperature was 4.5–7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5–4 degrees Celsius) warmer than during the pre-industrial era. Sea level was at least 16 feet higher than it was in 1900 and possibly as much as 82 feet higher.

If global energy demand continues to grow rapidly and we meet it mostly with fossil fuels, human emissions of carbon dioxide could reach 75 billion tons per year or more by the end of the century. Atmospheric carbon dioxide could be 800 ppm or higher—conditions not seen on Earth for close to 50 million years.

Two graphs with colored lines showing (left) past and different future annual carbon dioxide emissions with diffrent socioeconomic pathways and (right) past and future atmospheric carbon dioxide amounts for those pathways

More on carbon dioxide

NOAA carbon dioxide observations

Carbon cycle factsheet

Carbon dioxide emissions by country over time

Comparing greenhouse gases by their global warming potential

Ocean acidification


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