Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today. Since 1990, global temperatures have risen by 0.2°C and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have increased from 354 parts per million to over 380 parts per million and are still rising. If the anticipated growth in emissions is left unchecked, global average temperatures are calculated to be as much as 5.8°C higher by the end of this century. Rising global temperatures will bring changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. This would have a devastating impact on our economy and natural world, in the UK and, above all, in the most vulnerable developing countries.
The largest single cause of climate change is the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas. It works like this:
1. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity releases gases such as carbon dioxide (a "greenhouse gas") into the atmosphere.
2. Greenhouse gases help keep more heat in the Earth's atmosphere (global warming).
3. Global warming leads to climate change.
Climate change effects – what are they?
Effects on the Weather
Temperatures have already increased world wide by 0.2 degrees C, with higher temperatures predicted as carbon dioxide levels increase. In the UK we have experienced new extremes in our weather, for example:
- The 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1990.
- Six of the 10 warmest years were between 1995 and 2004.
- The highest UK temperature ever (38.5°C) was recorded in Kent, in August 2003.
Although there are some positive benefits from increased temperatures in the UK, unfortunately there also negative effects:
- The very old and very young can be at risk in extremely high temperatures.
- Water shortages may become more common.
- Crops can fail.
- Wildlife can be disrupted and suffer.
Effects on the sea
- As temperatures rise, the sea absorbs heat from the atmosphere.
- The warmer the sea gets, the more it expands, and the more the sea level rises.
- Higher sea levels and more storms (more rain on fewer days) lead to more severe flooding.
Effects on agriculture
- Higher temperatures may mean crops grown now in the south can be grown further north, but they may also mean some crops can't be grown at all, because it's too hot for them to survive.
- Crops may need more artificial watering if there is less rainfall and more evaporation. So widespread irrigation systems may need to be introduced.
- Warmer climates tend to encourage pests like aphids to hatch earlier, which means they can attack crops when they are younger and more vulnerable, and do more damage.
Effects on wildlife
- Climate change is changing the habitat and affecting the food supply of many animals, birds, fish and insects.
- Some wildlife may move or adapt, but many more would suffer.
- If creatures at the bottom of the food chain (like insects) are affected, it can affect others, all the way up to the top.
Effects on us
These are just a few of the problems climate change could cause for us in the UK:
- Higher summer temperatures and more sunshine can lead to breathing problems, skin cancers and cataracts.
- Warmer winters will allow bacteria to survive and thrive, leading to more disease.
- 10,000 more cases of food poisoning every year.
- Diseases which are now rare in the UK - such as malaria - could become common within 50 years.
- More rain and damp weather may lead to more pneumonia and other lung diseases.
- More flooding is likely to lead to more water-borne diseases.
UK taking action
The UK is acting now to adapt to climate change and to reduce the risk by reducing our contribution to the causes. The Government has committed the UK to a target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by between 26% and 32% by 2020, and by 60% by 2050. Furthermore, the UK will also need to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020.
Actions we can take to reduce CO2
Greenhouse gases are released whenever we use our gas or electrical household appliances - like the TV, cooker, washing machine or electric lights - when we drive a car or fly in a plane, and when we do dozens of other things in our everyday lives. We can take steps to reduce our carbon footprints (the greenhouse gas emissions our everyday actions create) in lots of different and easy ways.
- Quarter of the UK's carbon emissions come from energy we use in our homes.
- TVs and other electronic goods such as hi-fi equipment left on standby account for about 10 per cent of the electricity used in our homes.
- Double glazing cuts heat loss through windows by 50% - and could cut your heating bill by £80-£100 a year.
- Energy saving light bulbs last up to 12 times longer than ordinary light bulbs, and can save up to £100 on electricity over the bulb's lifetime.
- The average household could save up to £300 a year on energy bills by being more energy efficient.
- Under-inflated car tyres create more resistance, making your engine work harder, so it uses more fuel and produces more CO2 emissions.
- Driving faster uses more fuel and produces more CO2 emissions. Going at 70mph could use up to 9% more fuel than 60mph, and up to 15% more than 50mph.
- On average, each litre of fuel burnt in a car engine releases more than 2.5kg of CO2.
- A computer monitor left on standby overnight uses about the same amount of energy it takes to microwave six dinners.
- Printers consume 30%-40% of their peak power demand when idling between printing and standby.
- Every year an estimated 17.5 million plastic carrier bags are given away by supermarkets to their customers, the vast majority of which end up in landfill.
- The most energy-efficient products carry the Energy Saving Recommended logo, which means they cost less to run and help to prevent climate change.
- We contribute CO2 to the atmosphere indirectly through the manufacture, distribution and disposal of the products we consume, including food - especially items that travel long distances. The distribution and transportation of locally produced goods has less of an impact on the environment.
- Although many modern cleaning products have a negative impact on the environment, we still spend more than £1bn each year in the UK on cleaning products.
- Increasing numbers of recycled items are now available in shops and supermarkets, including clothing, furnishings and tableware, stationery, garden furniture and products, and even toys.
Calculate your carbon footprint
Your carbon footprint is a personal measure of how much carbon dioxide you create and how much you contribute to climate change.
Use the Act on CO2 calculator to find out what your carbon footprint is. You'll also get a personalised action plan with recommendations about how you can help tackle climate change.actonco2.direct.gov.uk
Other useful linkswww.energysavingtrust.org.uk/what_can_i_do_today
The use of renewable energy is an important part of the Government’s plan for reducing carbon emissions in the UK. This is because renewable energy resources produce very little carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. The Government has set a challenging target of increasing renewable electricity generation to 10% of electricity by 2010 and 20% by 2020. In 2006, renewables claimed a 4% share, so there is still some way to go to meet the 2010 target.
Generating your own energy
Generating energy at home from renewable technologies is becoming increasingly popular as energy prices rise and people want to reduce their carbon footprint. Electricity can be generated from solar panels and wind turbines, as well as heat energy generated from the sun, (solar hot water panels, heat pumps) and from burning wood fuel in a variety of forms (pellets, logs, wood chip).
Check out the Energy Saving Trust website for the latest information on how these technologies work, what grants area available and how much these technologies are likely to cost in terms of installation and day to day operation.www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/generate_your_own_energy