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Blackfriars Bridge

Energy and carbon, global warming and climate change

This page provides an overview of the issues behind climate change, what it is and why it’s happening, and the need to respond.

That includes saving energy; both to try and help mitigate climate change, and to conserve energy and save costs.

Also read about our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of our buildings in our Route 2050, Climate Action Programme and Climate Action Plans pages.

Climate change

We think climate change is the most serious and urgent environmental threat we face. It’s easy to displace it with maintaining economic growth – especially during the uncertainties around Brexit – but time is very short; climate change may well be slipping past the point of no return.

Climate change is caused by a sustained trend of global warming (increasingly referred to as ‘global heating’).

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.

GHG gas emissions cause warming by a physical/chemical mechanism called the ‘greenhouse effect’.

Global warming

As a whole, the heat content of the planet’s surface, lower atmosphere and ocean is increasing.

The global average rise since pre-industrial times is now about 1 – 1.2 degrees Celsius. This 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 unprecedented temperatures 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;
  • This accelerated climate change is continuing (currently about 0.2 deg C per decade);
  • 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 has seen 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;
  • July 2019 was the warmest of any month ever recorded, worldwide;
  • A warmer climate means a wetter climate. More rain leads to frequent flooding (in the UK, and much more seriously in many other countries);
  • More and more, warming is causing wildfires – even in the Arctic!

Is it all natural cycles?

Yes there are natural cycles; no they are not causing global warming.

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.

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 wholesome 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 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.

So what can be done?

United Nations

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.

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.

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 Church of England and Diocese of London currently aim to achieve 80% savings in energy and carbon by 2050 (compared to 2005), with an interim target of 42% by 2020.

Our own response

Ultimately it is our actions, each and every one of us, that cause climate change and climate disruption. 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 Bangladesh and Pakistan – 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.

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 our greenhouse gas emissions – carbon dioxide (CO2) mainly.

This means urgently attending to our buildings and how we heat and light them.

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 being replaced at last in the UK.

In the last few years, there has been a craze for shale gas – but it may prove to be even worse than coal, in its total carbon footprint, as well as the dangers of fracking (this is contested by advocates of shale gas).

Shale gas and fracking

Fracking is a technique to smash sub-surface rock formations while drilling for and extracting gas or oil.

Potential risks may include noise, landscape damage, traffic, water and soil contamination, methane release, excessive water use, even earth tremors. Several of these have been reported in the USA, where fracking is already widely practised. Unpleasant impacts on the health of people and animals have also been claimed. However, the evidence is sharply disputed.

The UK government largely relies on good regulation to manage any risks. But will such regulation be maintained if it is seen to threaten growth, or after the UK detaches itself from the EU?

Shale gas represents a whole new source of GHG emissions. We think the government should be applying subsidies to renewable energy, and to carbon capture and storage; not to the dregs of North Sea oil and gas, and not to shale gas.

Cutting our energy use

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.

Increasing use of renewable energy is very much needed. We should still be thinking about solar panels on our churches.

To read more

See Resources on the environment.

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