What causes climate change?

20 Apr 2020
4 min read

Climate change is one of the biggest crises facing humanity. This is what’s causing it.

‘Climate change’ is a catch-all term for the transformation in worldwide weather associated with increasing global temperatures. The world is getting warmer, and that’s having an impact on life on Earth through storms, drought, flooding and sea level rise.

Since reliable temperature records began in 1850, the world is about one degree Celsius hotter than it was between 1850 and 1900 – the pre-industrial age. The increase is even more pronounced over a shorter time period. In 2017, the planet was 0.68 degrees warmer than average temperatures between 1961 and 1990.

Scientists have warned that in order to avoid the most damaging consequences of climate change, we need to keep temperatures from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial figures. Ideally, we’d limit it to 1.5 degrees. A higher increase than this will, experts say, have a catastrophic impact on us and everything on the planet. But what exactly is causing this increase?

Climate change is a manmade phenomena

Geological records stretching back millions of years suggest that the Earth’s climate has always been in a state of flux, due primarily to natural factors such as changes in the sun, volcanoes and Earth’s orbit.

However, climate scientists 100 per cent agree that while natural phenomena can affect the climate, the changes we’re seeing now are directly the result of human activity – namely through our creation of greenhouse gases.

To a certain degree, the ‘greenhouse effect’ is necessary for supporting life on Earth. Gases in the lower atmosphere – primarily water vapour – trap heat from the sun as it is reflected back from Earth, radiating it and keeping the planet at a life-friendly temperature. If it wasn’t for this, earth would be about 30 degrees colder than it is today. However, humanity is now creating an excess of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and this ‘blanket’ of pollution around Earth results in a constant build-up of heat.

There is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there ever has been in at least the past 800,000 years. During the 20th and 21st centuries alone the level of carbon dioxide rose by 40% around the world.

What produces greenhouse gases?

Human activity is responsible for producing greenhouse gases in many different ways. Overwhelmingly the main cause of climate change is burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, which releases carbon that has been ‘locked away’ in the ground for thousands of years. Planting crops and rearing also animals releases a number of different greenhouse gases into the air. Livestock produces methane, for example, which is 30 times more powerful a gas than carbon dioxide. Fertilisers, meanwhile, use nitrous oxide which is nearly 300 times more powerful. And then forests, which help to remove and store greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, are being cutting down or burnt for agriculture.

In the UK, transport such as cars and trucks was the largest emitting sector of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, accounting for 28% of all emissions. This was followed by energy supply at 23%, businesses at 18%, domestic uses at 15%, agriculture at 10% and waste management at 5%. In order to prevent the planet from becoming too warm we need to use clean technologies, such as renewable energy, that minimise carbon emissions as much as possible.

Kicking the greenhouse gas habit

Climate change is already causing huge destruction here in the UK and all around the world. To reduce the risk to us and future generations, we may still be able to avoid the worst outcomes if the international community pulls together. Much of the burden weighs on governments, industry and businesses, which have set a number of their own targets but these do not go far enough to keep us safe and limit warming to the crucial 1.5 degree Celsius figure.

Communities and individuals can play an important role, too. The One Home website is an incredible resource for carbon-saving advice and ideas particularly the top ten tips to combat climate change. Check out our Do One Thing series, for example, which suggests quick, simple changes to make to your everyday routine. Meanwhile, our lifestyle section is packed with hints and tips on everything from being a green pet owner to adopting a low-carbon diet. There’s also loads of practical advice for saving energy in the Your Home section, and deeper dives into the climate conversation across the world in The Bigger Picture series.



The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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