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.
We think climate change is the most serious and urgent environmental threat we face. It tends 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 has also been dramatically highlighted by the school climate strikes, led by Greta Thunberg, and by Extinction Rebellion.
Causes of climate change
Climate change is caused by a sustained trend of global warming (increasingly referred to as ‘global heating’, since it began to speed up dramatically).
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 – 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;
- The rate of heating having previously been up to about 0.2 deg C per ten-year period has just doubled to 0.2 degrees in the last 5 years;
- 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 literally hundreds of 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!
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.
Is it all natural cycles?
Yes there are natural cycles; no they are not causing 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.
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 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 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.
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.
The Diocese has also adopted the Church of England’s national targets.
This means urgently attending 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 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.
Climate Action Programme
Climate Action Projects
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
UK Committee on Climate Change.
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