The Climate Crisis
The devastating Australian wildfires have turned the attention of people across the world to the issue of climate change, with David Attenborough stating in a recent BBC interview that “The moment of crisis has come”.
What causes climate change?
Climate change, scientists believe, is caused by a build-up of greenhouse gases that prevent heat from escaping the atmosphere, called the greenhouse effect. The gas that contributes most to the warming of the planet is water vapour, with some estimates stating that it contributes to up to 70% of the greenhouse effect. Interestingly, however, experts consider carbon dioxide (CO2) to be the most influential greenhouse gas involved in warming the planet to dangerous levels, even if it is less damaging than water vapour.
This is because, unlike water vapour, CO2 is produced in significant quantities by human activities, meaning that it is the gas that humans have the most control over increasing and limiting. There is also the added factor that its own contribution to the greenhouse effect causes there to be more water vapour in the atmosphere, which, in turn, warms the planet further. In short, human activity is contributing to global warming primarily through the production of CO2.
Where we are
Since pre-industrial times, the planet has warmed about 1°C, with scientists generally agreeing that limiting global warming to an average increase of 1.5°C maximum is imperative to prevent catastrophe. However, at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions the planet is projected to warm by over 4°C by the end of the century.
The Paris Agreement, an accord agreed to by every nation, pledged to keep global temperatures below 2.0°C, whilst striving to limit them to 1.5°C. However, the policies that have been enacted since the agreement are projected to limit global warming to 3°C, well above the 1.5° ‘danger line’. This figure only improves to between 2.5°C and 2.8°C when current pledges that have not been enacted yet are taken into account, which shows that as it stands not enough is being done and even the plans in place that have not taken effect yet are not sufficient.
The two biggest annual emitters of CO2 are first China, and second the United States, which has become particularly significant since it was announced on June 1, 2017, that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris agreement.
What you can do
The biggest cuts to carbon emissions will come from structural changes, such as big businesses adopting green initiatives or environmentally driven policies being enacted in government. However, everyone has a carbon footprint that is contributing to climate change and reducing this is one way that you can help the planet.
Travel accounts for “almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions”, according to the EU. Opting to use public transport over traveling in a car where possible is a good way to cut carbon emissions. However, avoiding flying wherever possible is increasingly being emphasised. For example, a return flight from London to Rome, which is a trip that can be made by train, produces 234kg of CO2 per person.
Roughly a quarter of carbon emissions come from the production of food, with a recent report suggesting that people should cut their intake of meat and dairy by a fifth. However, some environmental advocates see this as too soft of a target. Health expert Marco Springmann recently told the Guardian that a vegan diet is one of the best ways to significantly reduce your overall carbon footprint, as it reduces your food related carbon emissions by up to three quarters.