climate protection and energy policy
The greenhouse effect is the process by which the atmosphere traps some of the sun’s energy, warming the earth and moderating our climate. A human-driven increase in ‘greenhouse gases’ has enhanced this effect, artificially raising global temperatures and disrupting our climate. These greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (produced by burning fossil fuels and through deforestation), methane (released from agriculture, animals and landfill sites), and nitrous oxide (resulting from agricultural production plus a variety of industrial chemicals).
Every day we damage our climate by using fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) for energy and transport. The resulting impacts are likely to destroy the livelihoods of millions of people, especially in the developing world, as well as ecosystems and species, over the coming decades. We therefore need to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This makes both environmental and economic sense.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations forum for established scientific opinion, the world’s temperature is expected to increase over the next hundred years by up to 6.4° Celsius if no action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is much faster than anything experienced so far in human history. The goal of climate policy should be to keep the global mean temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. If there is more than a 2°C rise, damage to ecosystems and disruption to the climate system increases dramatically. We have very little time within which we can change our energy system to meet these targets. This means that global emissions will have to peak and start to decline by the end of the next decade at the latest.
The reality of climate change can already be seen in disintegrating polar ice, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels and fatal heat waves. It is not only scientists that are witnessing these changes. From the Inuit in the far north to islanders near the equator, people are already struggling with impacts consistent with climate change. An average global warming of more than 2°C threatens millions of people with an increased risk of hunger, disease, flooding and water shortages. Never before has humanity been forced to grapple with such an immense environmental crisis. If we do not take urgent and immediate action to protect the climate, the damage could become irreversible. This can only happen through a rapid reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Below is a summary of some likely effects if we allow current trends to continue.
Likely effects of small to moderate warming:
- 1.Sea level rise due to melting glaciers and the thermal expansion of the oceans as global temperature increases. Massive releases of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost and dying forests.
- 2.A greater risk of more extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods. Already the global incidence of drought has doubled over the past 30 years.
- 3.Severe regional impacts such as an increase in river flooding in Europe as well as coastal flooding, erosion and wetland loss. Low-lying areas in developing countries such as Bangladesh and South China are likely to be severely affected by flooding.
- 4.Severe threats to natural systems, including glaciers, coral reefs, mangroves, alpine ecosystems, boreal forests, tropical forests, prairie wetlands and native grasslands.
5.Increased risk of species extinction and biodiversity loss.
The greatest impacts will be on poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Andean South America as well as small islands least able to protect themselves from increasing droughts, rising sea levels, the spread of disease and a decline in agricultural production.
longer term catastrophic effects Warming from rising emissions may trigger the irreversible meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet, adding up to seven metres of global sea level rise over several centuries. New evidence shows that the rate of ice discharge from parts of the Antarctic means it is also at risk of meltdown. Slowing, shifting or shutting down of the Atlantic Gulf Stream current would have dramatic effects in Europe, and disrupt the global ocean circulation system. Large releases of methane from melting permafrost and from the oceans would lead to rapid increases of the gas in the atmosphere and consequent warming.