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Image: picture alliance/dpa/Patrick Pleul

Action urgently needed

Interview by Charlotta Lomas/ cb
September 11, 2014

2013 saw a record level of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere. Oksana Tarasova from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) tells DW that emissions aren't the only problem: it's where the gases go.


Deutsche Welle: What were the main findings of the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin?

Oksana Tarasova: This is the tenth Greenhouse Gas Bulletin we published. Every year we report on the levels of the main greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as well as the minor ones. For 2013, we reported record levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the history of observations and for the last 800,000 years.

On top of that, the annual increase of carbon dioxide in 2013 was the largest since we performed observations and global analysis. That means for the last 30 years.

Why have levels of CO2 increased more from 2012 to 2013?

This is a difficult question and very puzzling one, because it was not expected to happen. There was no dramatic, abrupt change in the anthropogenic emissions. It's not about emissions, it's about the sinks - where it goes.

When emissions are coming into the atmosphere, they do not stay there. 25 percent of those emissions are absorbed by the ocean and 25 percent are absorbed by the biosphere. So that means if something happens with those sinks, with the absorption, then we will of course see a higher level in the atmosphere. And the measurements indicate that the absorption by the biosphere in 2013 was reduced.

How do you conduct your research?

We have the observational network, which consists of about 120 stations that report measurements for our World Data Center for Greenhouse Gases, which is situated in Japan. We require the stations to reside in areas where there is no direct impact of anthropogenic emissions, because if you put a station in a city, for example, you would measure a much higher emissions level. But what we try to see is the general state of the atmosphere.

The WMO developed the guide of how everybody has to perform the measurements, what kind of standards everybody has to use, so that we are sure that something that is measured in one country, can be compared with the observation in another country. That gives us the possibility to calculate the global average.

Great Barrier Reef: seashell with diver. (Photo: imago/OceanPhoto)
Shells and other oceanic organisms are threatened by the rising amounts of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphereImage: imago/OceanPhoto

So for the first time the bulletin includes data on the acidification of the seas caused by carbon dioxide. What are the effects of this?

So when carbon dioxide is emitted in the atmosphere, 25 percent are taken by oceans. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms a weak carbonic acid and this changes the acidity of ocean water. That's not good, because if the ocean becomes more acidic, it will be difficult for some organisms like shells for example, because they just dissolve.

So in terms of levels of the CO2 increases and the findings, what does this reveal in terms of tackling climate change in your opinion?

Well, it only shows the longer we wait, the worse the situation will be, the more dramatic our actions will need to be to keep climate in conditions that we can adapt to - because it is changing and the greenhouse gases are the main drivers. They keep the heat in the atmosphere. So this means that the atmosphere will heat even more. And the greenhouse gases have a cumulative effect, as carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years.

If you take a pot and put it on the fire, and if you increase the fire, it will boil at some point. The same happens with the atmosphere. You increase the heat due to the presence of greenhouse gases and then you have all these extreme processes in the atmosphere: cyclones, hurricanes, droughts, floods. They get more intense, because there is much more energy available in the atmosphere.

How should policy makers respond to your findings?

We want policy makers to make informed decisions, so we consider our task to provide factual information, to provide the observational evidence. So our Secretary General [Michel Jarraud] will go to the Climate Summit in New York and show our plots and our conclusions, what the main drivers are and what we have to do to still have acceptable conditions, not only for us, but for our children as well. Then it's up to the countries what kind of scenario they want to choose. It's not up to UN agencies to take action.

Oksana A. Tarasova
Oksana Tarasova: the exponential rise of emissions has to be slowed downImage: Kosmos Akande-Alasoka

Oksana Tarasova is the chief of the atmospheric environment research division at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The international network is a member of the United Nations Development Group.

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