The Award Winning Carbon Reduction Programme for SME's


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Climate Change

With climate change now a commonly referenced phrase within the media and society, it is perhaps difficult to this global phenomenon. Yet despite the controversy surrounding climate change, there is very little debate amongst scientific and political establishments as to its cause and extent.

 

What is climate change?

In a nutshell, climate change refers to long-term changes in weather patterns and the temperature of our planets climate. However, when under discussion it is usually in reference to global warming, the anthropogenic (caused by humans) warming of the planet through the greenhouse effect.

 

First discussed in the early 20th century, the effects of global warming have seen a gradual trend of increasing global temperatures over the past century. Yet despite short-term fluctuations, there is wide-spread scientific agreement that average temperatures have and are continuing to rise.

We have seen average global temperatures rise by approximately 0.8°C over the last 100 years. However, the most alarming aspect is that the majority of this rise has occurred over the last three decades, indicating an accelerating warming effect. An example of this is 10 of the top 11 hottest years on record being in the last decade.

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Why is it happening?

There is widespread agreement amongst the scientific community that climate change is being driven by the release of greenhouse gases, leading to the accumulation of huge quantities in our atmosphere. The most famous greenhouse gas is of course Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which is by far the most abundant and hence the most problematic of the greenhouse gases. 

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Around 36GtC (that's 36 billion metric tonnes of CO2e) is released into our atmosphere each year due to human activity. The main source of this is through the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas in order to provide us with energy. Nonetheless, the huge volumes which are released every day have resulted atmospheric CO2 concentrations increasing by around 23% in the last 50 years.

This issue lies in the fact that with CO2 being a greenhouse gas, it possesses heat absorbing properties. Under relatively normal circumstances the Earth receives solar radiation, some of which warms the surface of our planet. However, much of this radiation is naturally radiated back into space.

 

This issue lies in the fact that with CO2 being a greenhouse gas, it possesses heat absorbing properties. Under relatively normal circumstances the Earth receives solar radiation, some of which warms the surface of our planet. However, much of this radiation is naturally radiated back into space.

The presence of greenhouse gases such as CO2 obstructs this process, absorbing outgoing solar radiation and emitting it in all directions. This phenomenon effectively traps heat within our atmosphere.

Whilst CO2 is naturally released as part of the carbon cycle, it is balanced by carbon 'sinks' such as the troposphere (trees and plants) and the oceans, which absorb CO2. The extent of human activity means that there is an imbalance however, as the amount of CO2 generated far outweighs that which is absorbed, leading to the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the subsequent warming effect.

 

What is going to happen? 

Climate modelling is an extremely difficult process due to the huge complexity of the Earth's climate. However, projections by the Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that the surface temperature of the Earth is most likely to increase by 1.1–6.4°C by the end of the century if no action is taken.

There have been much publicised UN discussions for a number of years regarding global CO2 emissions. Recently, a UN 'roadmap' agreement was reached which aims to have worldwide, legally binding targets in place by 2020, aiming to reduce global emissions to a stable level.

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Stabilisation of emissions would mean reducing emissions to a level where the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere equals the amount of CO2 absorbed by the troposphere and oceans. This would ease the continued accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere and the subsequent warming effect.

Whilst it is impossible at this point to prevent warming altogether, it is widely held that it is essential to keep global temperature rises below 2°C. Above this temperature, billions are likely to face water scarcity and, consequently, falling crop yields. Virtually all sea ice is predicted to melt, contributing to significant sea-level rises in excess of 1m. There would also be considerable losses to natural habitats such as the rainforests, which could amplify the rate of warming further.

 

 

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