WITH large swathes of Europe burning under record summer temperatures and wildfires, the heat is definitely on the subject of climate change. Can we afford to wait, procrastinate and debate about this issue while we literally see the world go up in smoke? Or do we grab the time we have on our beautiful planet to mitigate and minimise the negative effect global warming is having on our lives?
The debate has been raging since the late 1970s when the World Meteorological Organisation first raised concerns about the role human activity is having on increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its direct correlation to higher global temperatures. So what’s it all about?
The Greenhouse Gas Effect
Simply put, a major driver of climate change are gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat from the Sun and cause a greenhouse effect, a natural phenomenon that has kept global temperatures at an average 15°C (59°F). Without the greenhouse gas effect, it would be about 30 degrees Celsius cooler and life on Earth would not survive.
These gases - such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane among others - absorb and emit solar radiation. While water vapour makes up the largest component of greenhouse gases, human activity has little direct impact on it. Besides, water molecules last about nine days in the atmosphere, compared to carbon dioxide or methane which remain for years or centuries.
Over a 20-year period, methane’s contribution to rising temperatures is more than 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide when comparing the existence of the same mass of both gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, as the concentration of methane - the main component of natural gas - is much smaller than that of carbon dioxide, its impact on climate change, though potent, is also not as great and shorter-lived.
Role of Carbon Dioxide
Since the Industrial Revolution (from the 1750s) the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has crept up. In the last two centuries alone it has risen by 40 per cent, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and large-scale deforestation which interrupts the natural process of photosynthesis that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. In fact, at 414.72 parts per million (ppm) in 2021, it is at its highest level in human history. Alarmingly, scientists say the last time the levels of CO2 were so high was more than three million years ago.
Unlike oxygen and nitrogen which make up most of the atmosphere, greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide absorb heat and re-release it in all directions, including back to the Earth’s surface. By the unchecked use of fossil fuels and deforestation adding more carbon dioxide into the air - which endures in the atmosphere between 300 to 1,000 years - human activity is supercharging the natural greenhouse gas effect and warming the planet to unprecedented levels.
Point of no return?
Most studies agree that if well-documented rising global temperatures go unchecked - causing shrinking mountain glaciers, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, heatwaves and floods - the Earth will become unliveable.
Spurred by irrefutable scientific data about the effects of climate change on human survival, governments are getting increasingly shrill about the goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, part of the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015. And some are moving faster than others.
The world is already 1.1°C (34°F) warmer than it was in the late 1800s. The race is now to stop it rising above 1.5°C (34.7°F) to preserve a liveable planet. And there is consensus among climate experts that reaching net zero - where any ‘extra’ greenhouse gases caused by human activity is absorbed by oceans and forests for example - will achieve this target.
We can do it, again
Governments and industry have got together before to tackle another environmental crisis that threatened the survival of life on Earth - the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. In 1985, British scientists working in the Antarctic discovered that one third of the ozone layer, which acts as a protective film against harmful UV radiation around the planet, had depleted. Moreover, that chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons, used in cooling devices like refrigerators, had a direct link to this phenomenon.
This galvanised scientific communities and governments into collaborative action the world had rarely seen. By 1987, the Montreal Protocol - the only treaty to be ratified by every single country - was adopted to phase out the use of chemicals that were eroding the ozone layer. Now less than 40 years later, the ozone hole panic has subsided with the announcement, just last year, of the closure of the largest one above the Antarctic.
Similarly, now that climate change is no longer just theory with global warming manifesting itself in ways that we simply cannot deny, timely collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can and is being taken. Let’s stop sitting in our armchairs and arguing. Climate change is an emergency, and we can all contribute to mitigating its catastrophic effects in our lifetime.