Energy and carbon, global heating and climate change
Climate change is the result of global heating, caused by human activity, mainly by burning coal, oil and gas. This has become a very urgent problem. We all need to reduce our contribution to climate change, and do it fast.
That includes saving energy; both to try and help mitigate climate change, and to conserve energy and save costs.
Even in the era of coronavirus, we think climate change remains the most threatening environmental threat we face. It tends also to get pushed down the agenda by political controversies, and the constant search for economic growth.
A stream of reports from United Nation (UN) agencies, the World Meteorological Agency (WMO) and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have made clear that time is very short. Climate change may well be slipping past the point of no return.
The issue was also dramatically highlighted in 2019 by the school climate strikes, led by Greta Thunberg, and by Extinction Rebellion.
The science of climate change is rock solid, beyond reasonable doubt. The underlying physical processes have been known for 200 years. Research over the last 40 years has built up an overwhelming body of evidence.
Causes of climate change
Climate change is caused by a sustained trend of global heating (we used to call it ‘global warming’, until it began to speed up dramatically and dangerously).
This global heating results from a physical/chemical phenomenon known as the ‘greenhouse effect’.
The causes of this are primarily due to human activity, especially emissions of greenhouse gases (known as GHGs), mostly carbon dioxide or CO2. This comes from:
- Use of energy from coal, oil and gas (‘fossil fuels’) by factories and power stations, buildings, cars and aeroplanes;
- Land use change including cutting down and burning trees and forests;
- Many foods and agricultural practices (fertilisers, irrigation, cattle rearing, transport and refrigeration).
Building products such as cement, steel and aluminium also make a contribution.
The heat content of the planet’s surface, lower atmosphere and ocean is increasing at a speed unprecedented since prehistoric times!
The global average rise since pre-industrial times is now about 1.2 degrees Celsius. That might not seem like much, but it is just an average. Added up over the whole world that’s a lot of extra heat! Increasingly, many places are experiencing dangerous heat waves and other weather extremes.
- From the 1970s until the 2000s, average temperatures were rising steadily; the rise in surface temperatures slowed for a few years; then in late 2014, temperatures started rising again, sharply;
- 2014 was the then warmest year ever recorded, 2015 easily surpassed it, then 2016 beat the annual record yet again – three record years in a row;
- 2019 saw numerous all-time temperature records crashing; in at least four northern European countries, their all-time records have been topped by more than 2 deg C;
- 2014-2020 were the seven warmest years ever recorded. 2020 would have been cooler, at the beginning of a ‘La Nina’ cooling event, but for unprecedented heat across Siberia; as a result, the worldwide average that year turned out as warm as 2016, which was boosted by strong ‘El Nino’ warming!
- A warmer climate means, generally, a wetter climate. More rain leads to frequent flooding (in the UK, and much more seriously in many other countries), though extended dry periods occur too;
- More and more, warming is causing wildfires – even in the Arctic!
The greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases (GHGs)
The greenhouse effect is like a blanket of gases in the atmosphere, which let sunlight in but then trap some of the heat.
The main GHGs are water vapour and carbon dioxide (CO2). These are natural and healthy in themselves: animals (including humans) breathe CO2 out, plants breathe it in. That still leaves some in the air.
This quantity of CO2 is relatively small, but very significant. When the atmosphere contains the right concentration, it stays more or less within temperatures suitable for life as we know it to go on. When there is too much, as now, this upsets the natural balance and causes the earth to warm up.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now well over 400 parts per million (ppmv), having risen from only 280ppmv during industrial times. This change is caused by our emissions. Not only have our emissions continued to soar, but also there are signs that the capacity of the biosphere to absorb them may be decreasing as plants and the ocean become saturated.
Is it all natural cycles?
Yes there are complex natural cycles; no they are not the cause of global heating.
Of course there are irregular ups and downs in the temperature and the weather, in different places – locally, individual heat waves or freezing winters don’t always reflect the global trend.
But over longer periods or larger areas, the effects of increasing warming are dominant, and getting more and more severe.
The warming problem is further reinforced by feedback effects, for example due to deforestation, and the melting of the Arctic:
- Once forests are gone, there are fewer trees left to breathe in CO2. While the warming itself releases more CO2 and water vapour from the oceans;
- The Arctic is warming especially fast – as the ice melts there is less to reflect sunlight back into space, so the heat goes straight into the ocean.
So what can be done?
In December 2015, the UN’s annual summit of nearly 200 countries, held that year in Paris, finally reached agreement in broad terms on how to deal with climate change. This ‘deal’ is now in force. The USA has just rejoined. Almost every country on earth is now signed up – maybe the only thing everyone agrees on!
It isn’t a perfect deal, much more needs to be done, but it is a huge step forward.
Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC)
Regular IPCC reports are published every six years. The latest six-yearly report was in 2014. This showed that:
- Global warming and climate change are definitely happening, mainly due to human activity;
- This threatens a range of damaging consequences, in many parts of the world;
- To some extent we can adapt to those consequences, but only up to a point;
- Therefore we need to limit climate change and its consequences which they think can be done, but only if we act firmly and swiftly.
In 2018, on the request of the signatories to the Paris agreement, the IPCC published a challenging report on what we all need to do to keep warming to less than 1.5 deg C (now thought to be the necessary target), and what are the implications for sustainable development.
Further reports have been issued in 2019 by the IPCC and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), about the effect of global heating on glaciers and icecaps, and about changes in weather patterns worldwide. These reports make clear we are facing an escalating crisis.
The UK and Church of England
In response to the IPCC’s 2018 report, the UK government tightened its long-term target radically, now aiming to achieve ‘net zero carbon’ standard by 2050. This followed the advice of the national Committee on Climate Change. ‘Net zero carbon’ means that we need to remove from the air (eg by planting trees) at least as much as we put into it.
The General Synod of the Church of England, in line with many local authorities and other organisations, resolved in February 2020 to set a target of Net Zero Carbon by 2030. In March 2020, London Diocese Synod adopted a revised Diocesan Environmental Policy, affirming and adopting General Synod’s motion.
The Diocese of London
The Diocese of London is among many faith groups and other organisations seeking to give a lead.
The Diocese’s environmental efforts are directed, first and foremost, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our own buildings – carbon dioxide (CO2) mainly.
Because the Diocese has also adopted the Church of England’s Net Zero Carbon target, it is necessary and urgent for us to attend to our buildings and how we heat and light them.
Our own response
Ultimately it is our own individual actions that cause global heating and climate change. This results in increasing human suffering.
In developed countries like the UK, many people have insurance which is a big help. Otherwise the result is shattered lives. In some places – eg the Diocese’s partners in Mozambique and many others – people may remain flooded out for years.
Whatever the outcome, we should do all we can to help deal with it – let’s be part of God’s solution.
Energy and fossil fuels
Traditionally we have relied on fossil fuels to provide our energy. Most London churches are heated using gas, a few still run on oil.
Electricity is also used to provide heat, as well as lighting and power.
These all result in greenhouse gas emissions. Coal is worst by far, but is now being rapidly replaced in the UK, for electricity generation at least (regrettably it is still used for steel production).
Encouraging moves are now afoot to introduce renewable biomethane, and even a proportion of hydrogen, into the gas grid.
Cutting our energy use
Increasing use of renewable energy is very much needed. We should still be thinking about solar panels on our churches. All our churches should be switching to Green Energy Suppliers.
At the same time, we need to cut our energy use. Of course we should bear in mind health and fuel poverty – an ageing population needs more heat and can less afford it. Nevertheless there are many ways for churches, companies and individual people to avoid waste and reduce consumption.
Diocesan Environmental Policy
Climate Action Programme
Climate Action Projects
Green Energy Suppliers.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
UK Committee on Climate Change.
Environment and Sustainability, front page.