I’m guilty of not really thinking about this subject until I attended the ICTU Global Solidarity summer school this year and sat through a presentation on the subject of climate change which totally changed my thinking. I didn’t realise the huge impact that this has on our lives and with small measures we can assist in the change.
What is Climate Change?
Climate change refers to changes in the earth’s climate over the last hundred years. Some of these changes have natural causes but the effect of man-made greenhouse gas emissions is responsible for recent upward shifts in the global temperature. Climate change can cause extreme weather conditions, including hotter summers and colder winters. The UK 21 Century Climate Change Scenarios (UKCIPO8) provides information on the current and future trends of the climate in the United Kingdom.
Causes of Climate Change
Climate change has several causes, including:
Increased Levels of Greenhouse Gases
Natural gases, including atmospheric water vapour, methane and carbon dioxide, act as an insulating blanket for the earth by retaining heat from the sun which keeps the earth warm. This is known as ‘the greenhouse effect’, and the gases that cause it are known as ‘greenhouse gases’. Without these gases, the earth would be much colder than it is.
Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere cause global temperatures to rise. This is known as ‘global warming’.
Since the industrial revolution, emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, have increased sharply. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that points to human activities, such as the continued burning of fossil fuels, as being mainly responsible for the current increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Global warming caused by human activity is sometimes referred to as ‘anthropogenic global warming’ or ‘AGW’.
The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight how human activities have affected global temperature in the past 50 years. An overwhelming majority (97%) of climate scientists now accept these findings. Here are some key human activities that contribute to climate change.
Burning of fossil (mineral) fuels
This tops the list of human activities that contribute to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas (e.g. methane) and coal constitute major energy sources for industries, transport and heating in our homes. It is estimated that burning of fuels world-wide produces around 21.3 billion tons (21.3 gigatons) of carbon dioxide every year. Part of the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned is absorbed naturally by plants and oceans, but the rest gets caught up in the atmosphere and causes global warming.
Poor use of land
Poor land use is directly linked to climate change partly because, when soil and vegetation are lost, more carbon dioxide is released into atmosphere and less can be absorbed, which results in further global warming. Examples of poor use of land include urban sprawl (uncontrolled urban development), destruction of forests and excessive farming.
If waste is not properly treated or disposed of, it produces greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. These gases contribute to global warming. Disposal of waste by landfill is a key source of man-made methane emissions in the atmosphere. This is one reason why it is so important to reduce waste or recycle it.
Cooling units and aerosol sprays
When the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) in aerosol sprays and as coolants in fridges, freezers and air conditioners was phased out in order to prevent ozone layer depletion, CFCs and HCFCs were replaced with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The use of HFCs is restricted in the UK as they also contribute to global warming.
Solar and Orbital Variations
Changes in solar energy can affect global temperature. Thousands of years ago, global temperature changes were driven by solar and orbital variations. The Royal Society, the National Academy of Science in the UK and the Commonwealth confirms that solar activity contributed to changes in global temperature in the early 20th century. However, satellite measurements show that there has been little change in solar activity during the last 30 years to warrant recent global warming. Rather, the evidence points to man-made greenhouse gas emissions as the primary driver of recent increases in temperature. However, many in the scientific community agree that it is important to acknowledge the roles that the sun and orbital variations play in the global climate.
The current climate change debate also explores the impact that oceans and seas may have on climate change. For example, the jury is out on whether abrupt future changes in ocean currents can cause fundamental changes to the climate like what happened in the past, when ice sheets melted over North America and Europe in the ice age. These questions are important as oceans and seas are key elements in the world’s climate system. They have the capacity to carry a large amount of heat that can radically affect global climatic conditions. On the other hand, the increase in greenhouse gases especially carbon dioxide also have an impact on seas and oceans. Recent studies show that the increased levels in atmospheric carbon dioxide are “causing the world’s oceans to become more acidic.
Volcanic eruptions may only last a few days, but they may affect the climate for a much longer period of time. This is due to the large amounts of gas (mainly sulphur dioxide) and ash that are released when a volcano erupts. These emissions can linger in the atmosphere for several years and affect the amount of solar energy reaching the earth. Scientific studies show that an individual volcanic eruption can lower temperatures and cause global cooling with its effects lasting for years. The impacts of volcanic eruptions on the global climate were observed in the aftermath of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991. Although large scale volcanic eruptions have been infrequent recently, current research continues to explore the impact that large scale volcanic eruptions may have on the climate in the future Some of the above will be relevant in our lives and there are others we can do very little about to help but we should make every effort to do our bit if even only switching from using aerosols to roll on deodorants.
Many surveys have taken place over the years and here are some of the facts behind the surveys
According to the analysis of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, between now and 2050, we need to leave at least two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to keep global warming below the widely accepted threshold of two degrees Celsius. If this occurs, owners of these reserves will have to sacrifice trillions of dollars in profits. The fossil fuel companies and their investors, who are counting on these profits, have a huge vested interest in blocking meaningful climate action and, as we have seen so far, the power to do so
Futures studies show that global temperatures may rise by the end of the 21st century to between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels, if concrete steps are not taken to tackle increased levels of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change has impacts on our health. For example, increased flooding events may cause water borne infectious diseases while a rise in heatwaves can cause deaths among the old and very young. The heatwave in 2003 is estimated to have caused over 2,000 extra deaths in England and Wales and 35,000 deaths in other parts of Europe like Italy, Spain and France.
Water and Food Scarcity
Climate change is also likely to affect global water availability in the future. Higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns will affect global water supplies. This will have a knock-on effect on global food supplies as there may be less water available for agricultural purposes. This scenario is already being played out in water-stressed parts of Africa, Asia and Australasia.
Extreme weather conditions
Climate change can increase the frequency of heatwaves, floods and droughts around the world. In various reports, Nature, the international weekly journal of science, notes that recent summers in Europe have become increasingly hotter. It attributes the changes in weather conditions to high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It forecasts that Europe (including the UK) may experience even hotter summers in the future.
So what can we do to assist in the reduction of our personal CO2 emissions? Here are some recommendations for you to think about and they may even save you money. It is our responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint. For more information visit the Energy Saving Trust website
Replace conventional light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs.
Low-energy light bulbs last up to 12 times longer than conventional ones. It is estimated that the use of one of these low energy bulbs can help save each UK house £9 and 40kg of CO2 emissions a year.
Don’t leave appliances on standby
The standby function in most appliances uses about 10-60 per cent of the energy that is needed to power an appliance when in use. You save energy and reduce household emissions when you switch off from the socket.
Double-glazed windows help to cut down heat loss and result in energy savings. Also as a cost-saving measure, you can invest in draught excluders for your doors and windows. Investing in loft insulation and cavity wall insulation will help to cut heat loss from your home and reduce your energy bills.
Recycle and compost more
These measures help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced from landfill waste. Find out from your local authority what recycling and composting facilities are in place if kerbside collections are not provided. You can also request a full list of items that can be recycled.
Central heating/hot water boiler checks and replacement
Old conventional boilers waste about 40% of their heat and need to be serviced regularly. If you can, consider replacing your old boiler for one of the newer energy-efficient condenser boilers which should be fitted by a gas installer registered with the Gas Safe Register.
Generate your own electricity and heat
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and gas to produce mains electricity and heat is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. By installing renewable technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and wood-fuelled heating systems (also called ‘biomass systems’) you can generate your own energy and heat and significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
Eat less meat and dairy products
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that livestock production (rearing animals for food) is responsible for 14.5 per cent of man-made global greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of emissions from this sector are from raising cattle for beef and from dairy farms. The Meat Free Monday campaign aims to raise awareness of the environmental and health benefits of reducing meat and dairy consumption, by encouraging people and restaurants to have at least one meat-free day a week.
On the move
- Walk, cycle or use public transport for journeys that don’t need a car.
- Take part in a car-sharing arrangement, especially during peak traffic times.
- Consider replacing your car with an electric or hybrid car.
- If you have a petrol or diesel engine car, try and fill up during the cooler hours of the day and keep your fuel-tank lid tightly sealed. This helps to reduce emissions caused by evaporation.
- Accelerate gradually instead of over-revving. Use cruise control when on the motorway.
- Do regular engine tuning and car maintenance, e.g. change your oil filters regularly and repair any fuel leak.
By each person doing their bit we may be able to save our earth for our future generations to live in. You should try to watch Naomi Kleins film titled “This Changes Everything” it will convert you into making changes. Also watch the nipsa global solidarity page for updates and more information on the subject.