In the ongoing discourse surrounding climate change and its implications, it’s essential to grasp the fundamentals. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the key concepts and the pressing need for action.
Understanding Climate Change
Climate change refers to prolonged changes in the earth’s temperature and weather patterns. While some shifts may occur naturally, human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas since the 1800s, have become the primary driver of climate change. This phenomenon is posing multifaceted threats to human health and well-being, endangering clean air, safe drinking water, a reliable food supply, and secure shelter.
By 2030 to 2050, climate change is expected to result in approximately 250,000 additional deaths annually due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress alone. The direct health-related costs are estimated to reach between $2 to $4 billion per year by 2030. Vulnerable regions with limited healthcare infrastructure, primarily in developing nations, face the greatest challenges in coping with these impacts. Read more here.
One of the biggest and most recent examples of climate change is Global Warming (the current rise in the average temperature of Earth’s air and oceans), an effect of greenhouse gases.
The Greenhouse Effect
The greenhouse effect is a natural process vital for maintaining Earth’s habitable conditions. It occurs when gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun, preventing it from escaping into space. Sunlight, upon reaching Earth, is partially reflected back, while the rest is either absorbed by the atmosphere or the Earth’s surface.
This absorbed energy warms the planet, leading to the emission of invisible infrared radiation. Read more here.
Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, absorb a substantial portion of this radiation, further warming the Earth. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has surged significantly over the past century due to human activities like fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. In 2013, it exceeded 400 parts per million, a level unseen for millions of years, and as of 2023, it stands at over 420 parts per million, 50% higher than pre industrial levels.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2): CO2 is released into the atmosphere through various processes, including the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil, as well as the burning of solid waste and biological materials like trees. It also arises from specific chemical reactions, for instance, those occurring during cement production. The atmosphere naturally removes or “sequesters” carbon dioxide when plants absorb it as part of the biological carbon cycle.
Methane (CH4): Methane emissions occur during the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil. Additionally, livestock and agricultural practices, land usage changes, and the decomposition of organic waste in municipal landfills contribute to methane emissions.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O): Nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere as a result of activities in agriculture, land use modifications, and industrial processes. It is also produced during the combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste, as well as during wastewater treatment.
Fluorinated gases: Hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride are synthetic, potent greenhouse gases that originate from a variety of household, commercial, and industrial applications and procedures. Fluorinated gases, particularly hydrofluorocarbons, are sometimes used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances found in the stratosphere, such as chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and halons. Although they are emitted in smaller quantities compared to other greenhouse gases, they possess considerable potency. They are often referred to as high-GWP (Global Warming Potential) gases because, per unit mass, they trap substantially more heat in the atmosphere than CO2, with GWPs typically ranging from thousands to tens of thousands.
Implications of the Greenhouse Effect
The Earth’s average temperature has risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) between preindustrial times and the present, with a significant portion of this increase occurring in recent decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that we have a limited “carbon budget” to emit approximately 400 billion tonnes more of CO2, measured from the beginning of 2020, to have a 50% chance of staying below the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. If the current pace continues, this budget will be exhausted by around 2030. This rapid global warming, driven by fossil fuel combustion, has far-reaching consequences, including:
- Increased Frequency and Intensity of Extreme Weather Events: Heatwaves, hurricanes, droughts, and floods are becoming more frequent and severe, posing significant risks to communities and ecosystems.
- Rising Sea Levels: Melting ice sheets, glaciers, and warmer ocean temperatures are causing sea levels to rise, threatening coastal cities and habitats.
- Ecosystem Disruption: Shifts in ecosystems are affecting the habitats, behaviors, and migration patterns of plants and animals, leading to biodiversity loss.
- Human Impacts: Climate change disrupts living conditions, work patterns, and food production, contributing to poverty and inequality.
- Health Risks: Diseases transmitted by insects, such as dengue fever, are on the rise, and heatwaves are becoming more deadly.
- Agricultural Challenges: Droughts and floods pose significant risks to agriculture, with crop yields expected to decline as temperatures rise.
Insect-borne diseases like dengue fever are on the rise, and heatwaves are becoming more lethal. Droughts and floods pose significant risks to agriculture, with crop yields expected to decline by 3 to 7 percent for every degree Celsius of warming.
Solutions for Emission Reduction
While Earth’s climate has experienced natural warm and cool phases in the past, the current rate of warming cannot be attributed solely to natural causes. Halting runaway greenhouse gas emissions is within our capability, but it requires immediate, comprehensive global action. According to the IPCC, we must reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
This ambitious goal necessitates significant efforts at the international, national, and local levels.
The critical message is clear, decision-makers, companies, leaders, and activists worldwide acknowledge the urgency of addressing climate change. The emissions released today will have far-reaching consequences for the future, just as past emissions influence our current climate reality. The time for action is now.