06/05/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

The Arctic Passes Climate Threshold

Arctic CO2 levels have hit a milestone. Reaching concentrations not seen in the last 800,000 years, 400 ppm (parts per million) is now being measured all across the Arctic.

World governments have in recent years repeatedly agreed to target a 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) temperature rise by 2100. However, new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) international air sampling network shows rising CO2 concentrations at 400 ppm or higher.

While it's currently only the Arctic that has reached the 400 level, the global CO2 level is expected to follow suit. According to NOAA, the global average, which currently is at 395, is expected to reach 400 ppm in about four years time. To put this into context, before the Industrial Age in the 1860s, levels were around 275 ppm.

"The fact that it's 400 is significant," said Jim Butler, Director of Global Monitoring at NOAA's Earth System Research Lab, and noted that it's a reminder that the current path of business-as-usual still needs to dramatically change.

The new data from NOAA comes the same week as the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels hit a record high of 34.8 billion tons in 2011, which made the agency question the likeliness of reaching the 2 degree target.

The 350 mark

While scientists have called the new CO2 levels a troubling milestone, it has been expected. Since the early 1960s, CO2 levels has risen by about 0.7 ppm per year and slowly accelerated to about 2 ppm per year the last decade.

In 2008, when the CO2 level was at 385 ppm, a group of scientists from NASA, Columbia University, Yale University and others published a paper on what the global target for atmospheric CO2 should be. They concluded that "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced to at most 350 ppm" and noted that "if the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects."

At the time, the scientists' assessment gained vast support among other climate scientists and economists, but little political support was gathered.

Unintended consequences

The Arctic is an interesting place. Not only does it stand at the forefront of climate change when it comes to climate science, geopolitical frictions and rising temperatures. The current environmental changes taking place in the region also provide us with some preliminary insights into the consequences of melting ice caps.

Last month, industry expert and government officials from Norway and South Korea met to discuss the prospects of global warming creating a sea passage across the North Pole. And the benefits are clear. The distance between ports in Western Europe and those in Japan, China and Korea is 40% shorter through the Northern sea route than the typical route through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

However, while Korea on one hand is pursuing the business opportunities in the effects of climate change, there continues to be a strong political will on the Korean Peninsula to take action against the causes of climate change. Earlier this year, Korea approved an emission trading scheme that will be introduced in 2015, and just last month Korea announced a new program intended to develop a satellite for monitoring climate change and air pollution in Northeast Asia.

"If the satellite finds the exact origin and the path of pollutants from China, we can mitigate the damage to our forests and agriculture," said Hong Yoo-deok, Director of Climate and Environment Research, adding that such data could also be used for demanding compensation from China.