Energy and carbon, global warming and climate change
- Climate change
- So what can be done?
- Energy and fossil fuels
- To read more
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 energy costs.
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. The causes of this are primarily due to human activity, especially:
- Our use of energy from coal, oil and gas
- Land use change including deforestation.
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 – 1.1 deg C. This might not seem like much, but it is an average. 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 degrees per decade). The so-called warming ‘pause’ – if there was one – is now firmly in the past;
- 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; in fact, the last five years now look to have been the five warmest in recorded history (though not quite in the same order);
- A warmer climate means a wetter climate. 2010 was the wettest year recorded worldwide – contributing to numerous flood disasters – and there have been many more since.
Is it all natural cycles?
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.
They may be caused partly by disruption from human-induced climate change, especially due to melting ice; partly from natural variations such as solar and ocean cycles, currents and winds eg the jet stream, and occasional random events like volcanoes (of which there have been more in recent years).
A sustained trend
Over longer periods or larger areas, the effects of increasing warming are expected to dominate, and to get more and more severe. This trend may not be obvious everywhere, but is very real.
This is caused by human activity producing greenhouse gases (known as GHGs), mostly carbon dioxide or CO2, therefore often known as ‘carbon emissions’.
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 causes the earth to warm up.
Emissions and concentrations
During the last century or so, the concentration of GHGs in the air has been going up sharply, due to human activity, mainly:
- Industries and power stations, buildings, cars and aeroplanes, burning fossil fuels including coal, oil and gas;
- Land use change, especially cutting down and burning trees and forests;
- Many foods and agricultural practices (nitrate fertilisers, irrigation, cattle rearing, transport and refrigeration);
- Manufacture of building products, mainly cement, steel and aluminium.
All these things release vast and growing amounts of CO2, more than plants (or the sea) can take in – disturbing the natural balance and causing warming.
The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is now over 400 parts per million (ppmv), having risen from only 280ppmv during industrial times. Not only have emissions continued to soar since, but also there are indications that the capacity of the biosphere to absorb them may be decreasing as plants and the ocean become saturated.
Some GHGs other than CO2 are not natural at all (eg HFCs, PFCs); some are toxic (eg oxides of nitrogen, produced by vehicles and aviation). We have to drastically curtail our production of these.
Coal burning and aviation are particularly insidious. The aerosols they release cause short term temperature changes that mask the longer term warming.
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.
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 – and this includes in the developing world – 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 three sources of fossil fuels to provide our energy:
- Coal is very dirty, causing air pollution and direct warming due to soot, as well as warming by CO2, through the greenhouse effect (while masking these through sulphate aerosols);
- Oil suffers from supply issues. It also raises environmental hazards, as the reserves tapped become harder to access;
- Gas supplies are subject to supply constraints. Its carbon footprint is less than oil and much less than coal, but remains significant;
- There is 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 (of course this is contested by its advocates).
Emissions from energy may be direct (flue gases from your own boiler), or indirect, e.g. from power stations.
Shale gas and fracking
Fracking is a technique to smash sub-surface rock formations while drilling for and extracting gas (and/or oil, known as ‘shale oil’ or ‘tight oil’).
Potential risks may include noise, landscape damage, traffic, water and soil contamination, methane release, excessive water use, even geological shifts. To one extent or another, several of these risks have been reported in the USA, where fracking is already widely practised. Unpleasant impacts on the health of people and animals have also been alleged. However, the evidence is sharply contested.
The UK government places its reliance on assurances by industry, and by its own advisors, that such risks can be managed by good regulation. But will such regulation be maintained if it is seen to threaten growth, or after the UK detaches itself from the EU’s regulatory regime?
Compared to the vast open spaces of the US, this crowded isle may likely impose greatly intensified risks where fracking sites are close to homes, schools, businesses, water supplies or landscapes of natural beauty.
Burning fossil fuels, including oil and gas, adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Shale gas represents a whole new source. Once it is added to companies’ balance sheets, there is a compulsion to sell it and burn it.
The government sees shale gas as a ‘bridge technology’ – a stopgap, while we develop and shift to low carbon alternatives, which shale gas is not. But we need those technologies long before shale gas will come on stream.
Therefore we should be focussing on a serious technological leap, now. We think the government should be applying subsidies to that effort, to renewable energy, and to carbon capture and storage; not to the dregs of North Sea oil and gas, and not to shale gas. These are distractions.
People ask, would you rather have ‘home-grown’ shale gas, or bottled gas from Qatar or Peru? But these are genuine stop gaps, being imported already; they should be phased out as soon as possible. Shale gas isn’t a genuine alternative.
Whilst recognising the need for security of domestic supply, it is unclear that fuel poverty argues in favour of shale gas.
Of course we can’t halt shale gas exploration by ourselves – nor choose whether to use gas at all, nor where to get it from! However we can and should make a vigorous contribution to debate, e.g. by writing to our MPs and the government.
Cutting our energy use
At the same time, we all need to cut our energy use (bearing in mind health and fuel poverty – an ageing population needs more heat and can less afford it).
The rest of us have to be more frugal. Of course cost is a factor too.
Increasing deployment of local renewable energy is very much needed. We should still be thinking about solar panels on our churches.