Emissions. Net Zero. Greenhouse gases. Renewables. You’ve probably heard these words before, but what do they mean and how do they fit into the bigger picture of our planet? As today is International Clean Air Day, we thought we’d take a look at why reducing the pollution in our atmosphere is such an important part of protecting the environment. Consider this your cheat sheet on climate change.
Is Climate Change the Same as Global Warming?
The two processes are closely linked but they’re not exactly the same. Global warming refers to the fact that the Earth’s atmosphere is gradually getting hotter. Climate change is a broader term that describes all the ways in which our natural environments and weather systems are changing. This includes rising temperatures but also the ‘side effects’ of these rising temperatures – things like melting glaciers, heavier rainfall and longer droughts. More on those side effects later.
What are the figures?
In the past 150 years, the average global temperature has risen by about 1°C. The increase has been fastest in the past 20 years, and it’s only getting faster. 1°C might not sound like much of a change but it has dramatic impacts on our planet. To put it in perspective, the extra heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere is equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima bombs going off every day. The WWF (a leading environmental charity) reports that if the temperature rises another 1°C, the environmental destruction caused would lead to “mass displacement of people and widespread species loss”.
Why Is the Planet Getting Hotter?
The rise in temperature is mainly due to an increase in something called ‘The Greenhouse Effect’. Here’s how it works…
> The Earth is surrounded by a layer of gases that act like a blanket. They trap some of the heat energy in the Earth’s atmosphere and prevent it from escaping into wider space, keeping the planet warm.
> The process is called the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ because it’s similar to what happens in a garden greenhouse – heat is trapped so that the inside climate stays warm even when the air outside is colder.
> The gases that trap the heat are called ‘greenhouse gases’. Examples include carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour.
This process has occurred since before humans walked the Earth. It is natural and necessary in order to keep the planet warm enough for living things to survive. However, the problem is that over the last 150 years or so, human activity has caused more and more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. As a result, the Greenhouse Effect has been increasing, causing the planet to heat up.
What Have Humans Got to do With It?
97% of scientists agree that human activity is the main cause of climate change…
What Are the Consequences?
You might be surprised to hear that we’re not going to talk about polar bears. Although polar bears are beautiful and important creatures, we must remember that it’s not just extreme environments like the Arctic that are being affected. Global temperature rise has had and will continue to have severe impacts all over the world:
> Ice melting in colder climates means there’s more water in our oceans. This causes the overall sea level to rise, leading to flooding and contamination of drinking water supplies.
> More extreme weather patterns occur more often. Hurricanes and storms damage towns and cities, while heat waves can be deadly for the elderly, young and vulnerable.
Photo credit: NBC News
> Reduced rainfall and increased drought means the land is drier. This leads to reduced crop growth (which could result in global food shortages) and increased risk of wildfires.
> Microbes that cause disease are more able to survive, reproduce and infect other living things, leading to an increase in infectious illnesses.
> All of these environmental changes result in the destruction of habitats and ultimately lead to the extinction of wildlife species.
We can already see evidence of these changes. This year alone there have been more severe storms and flooding in the UK, and devastating wildfires in Australia and California. A recent report has found that since 1970, 68% of the world’s wildlife has become extinct.
What Can We Do About It?
The scientific community agrees that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to prevent the global temperature rising more than about another 0.5°C. To do that, we need to drastically decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) we produce – i.e. reduce our ‘carbon footprint’. The good news is that the solutions are known and feasible, we just need to implement them! Here are some of the key areas for change:
ENERGY: Stop burning fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy – that which is produced from naturally replenished sources, such as wind and sunlight.
TRAVEL: Take fewer journeys in traditional cars and aeroplanes. Walk, bike or take public transport where possible, or drive an electric vehicle.
MATERIALS: Rather than throwing things away, repair items, re-use them, give them to someone in need. If you have to get rid of them, try to recycle.
FOOD: Choose seasonal, local produce so it doesn’t have to be flown or shipped from across the world, eat less meat and dairy, and reduce food waste.
LAND: Plant more forests (reforestation) rather than cutting them down (deforestation), keep wild places wild, and avoid intensive over-farming.
DISCUSSION: Get more people involved in conversations about climate change, improve education on the issue and increase awareness.
What Are We Doing About It?
In 2016 a landmark environmental pact was signed by 195 countries. It is called the Paris Agreement. For the first time ever, multiple nations officially agreed that climate change is an issue that needs to be tackled by a coordinated global effort. And then they set out an action plan to achieve this.
The pact sets the following target: by 2100, the global temperature must not be more than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels (the temperature the planet was around the 1850s), and ideally no more than 1.5°C.
The 1°C mark was passed in 2015, so we’ve got about 0.5°C left.
Photo credit: triplepundit.com
As part of this agreement, the UK aims to reach ‘Net Zero emissions’ by 2050. Let’s break that down… Emissions refers to the release of harmful greenhouse gases. ‘Net zero’ means that the amount of emissions produced equals the amount of emissions removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, overall, the amount of emissions doesn’t increase. To achieve Net Zero, the UK will need to significantly reduce the amount of emissions it currently produces, but also increase its ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Some major companies have set their own environmental targets too. For example, IKEA has pledged to become ‘climate positive’ by 2030. Apple, Google and Microsoft have all committed to 100% renewable energy supply. And Sainsbury’s aims to release net zero emissions by 2040.
What's the One Thing I Should Remember?
If you only take away a single piece of information from this article, let it be this: it’s not too late! Climate change can be an overwhelming topic to read or talk about, but there is an abundance of ingenious solutions to the problem and many passionate people working hard to implement them. Do your bit where you can because a little bit of progress is always better than no progress at all.
For More Information
> Book – ‘There Is No Planet B’, Mike Berners-Lee
> Film – ‘A Life on Our Planet’, David Attenborough
> Podcast – ‘So Hot Right Now’, Lucy Siegle & Tom Mustill
> Blog – ‘The Zero Waste Chef’, Anne-Marie Bonneau