The level of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen roughly from 300 to 400ppm over the last 60 years.

What are the reliable calculations showing that such a rise has been caused by human activity? I am looking for something like "X millions of tones of kerosene was burnt between 1980 and 2010 which produced Y millions tones of CO2 which effected in additional Z ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere".

  • $\begingroup$ The rise is mainly but not entirely due to human activity. Some of it is due to volcanism. Historically the level of CO2 has always fluctuated, but the levels we have now are the highest for millions of years. There have been many minor eruptions in the last 60 years,and a few major one like Pinatubo in the Philippines. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelWalsby The question is not what the cause of the rise is. I am asking for numbers quantifying the sources of the rise and their contributions to the ppms. $\endgroup$
    – Greendrake
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ I just made a comment, not an answer, so don't get upset about it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ Do the math yourself. It's fairly easy to find data on how much fossil fuel is burned each year. The CIA World Factbook is a good place to start. From there, simple chemistry will give you the amount of CO2 that produces, and how much that would increase the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere. If you do the math correctly, the number you get will be somewhat higher than the actual increase, because (as @Keith McClary points out) some of the CO2 dissolves in the oceans. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 3:56

3 Answers 3


Possibly the strongest human "fingerprint" on rising CO2 levels comes from the changing ratio of carbon isotopes.

Basically, there are three isotopes of carbon -- carbon atoms with varying weights of neutrons -- carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14. Carbon-12 and carbon-13 are stable and make up most of of the carbon in living things and the atmosphere. (I'm paraphrasing the American Chemical Society discussion.) Carbon-14 is (mainly) created when cosmic rays hit nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere; it's less statable and has a half-life of 5,730 years. All three forms behave pretty much the same in chemical reactions and the environment. Plants and animals use carbon as building blocks and accumulate all three isotopes in their structures.

Things that are alive now accumulate carbon isotopes in the same ratio as they're available in the environment; when plants or animals die, they stop accumulating carbon carbon, and the carbon-14 in their structures breaks down according to its half-life, which is how researchers do carbon dating of ancient materials.

What this means is that very old concentrations of carbon -- such as oil and coal -- contain little or no carbon-14, just carbon-12 and carbon-13. When you burn these materials, the combustion process forms carbon dioxide, and the carbon in those CO2 molecules will be carbon-12 and carbon-13. Thus, you can sample the atmosphere, analyze the mix of isotopes, and determine how much of the CO2 comes from fossil sources.

The rise in CO2 is unambiguously caused by human activity, principally fossil-fuel burning. This is clear from the numbers: We know how much fossil fuel is converted into CO2 each year and emitted into the atmosphere. -- Scripps Institution of Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling



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Some of the carbon goes into the oceans and soil:

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The cumulative contribution to the atmosphere is the area of the light blue region of this chart. enter image description here CarbonBrief, Le Quéré, C. et al. (2016)


As per the answer by @KeithMcClary, the atmosphere gets 4 additional billions of tons of carbon from human activity every year.

Assuming all that carbon is in the form of CO2, the mass of it will be: 4*(c+o*2)/c where c is the atomic mass of carbon (12), o is the one of oxygen (16). This makes roughly 14.7 billions of tons CO2.

The total weight of the atmosphere is 5,750,000,000,000,000 tons (from here). By simple division we get roughly 2.56 parts per million, which corresponds to 100ppm increase over 60 years (given that annual increase back then was obviously lower than 2.56ppm we have these days).


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