In late March, the UN climate change conference made an historic announcement: It had reached a conclusion that climate change was a problem and that drastic measures needed to be taken to combat it. The conference – officially called the Paris Agreement – decided the only way to go about saving the earth was by putting a halt to global warming. To achieve this, countries would need to join hands and commit to significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The agreement doesn’t set any particular targets for individual countries, but it outlines a plan for all nations to work together to reduce their collective emissions. To put this into context, here’s a little bit of information about the terms “greenhouse gas” and “global warming”:
What Is a Greenhouse Gas?
If we want to know how much CO2, methane, or other greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, we have to look at the numbers. At present, we’re emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we’ve had in the past 10,000 years. The greenhouse effect is, in a nutshell, what gives rise to our glorious spring and summer days. It allows temperature extremes to be avoided, allowing us to experience a relatively balmy climate. Without the greenhouse effect, it gets pretty chilly up here – not that we mind. It’s just the way nature intended it to be.
Greenhouse gases are those carbon-based molecules that, when in excess, act as a blanket that traps heat.
What Is Global Warming?
Like many things in life, terms get muddled with time. Back in the 1950s, people were certain that CO2 caused climate change. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that climate science began evolving into a field of study. In 1973, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed at the behest of the United Nations. The goal of the panel was to examine the state of climate science and assess whether or not climate change was indeed a problem. The answer at the time was “no” – at least not beyond a doubt. It is now widely accepted that climate change is indeed a problem, and the warming that has occurred over the past 50 years can be attributed to humans. (This is the so-called “Anthropocene” period; we’re in it now.) Since its inception, the IPCC has released six assessment reports, the most recent of which was published in September of this year.
The Paris Agreement
It’s not only the number of greenhouse gases that matter, but also the amount released per year. To put this into context, here’s a rough calculation, assuming 1,000 ppm represents a dangerous level of CO2:
• The estimated global emissions currently stand at about 415 ppmv.• A level of 1,000 ppm would result in a 4.15°C warming• The world is currently on track for about 3°C of warming (IPCC, 2013)
Based on this, we can see that to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions need to be brought down by about 4.15°C – or 71%. If we compare this amount to the emissions that have occurred over the past 10,000 years, it is clear that we are experiencing a higher level of greenhouse gas emissions now than at any other time in history. Fortunately, it’s not too late to reverse course. By following a series of aggressive measures, we can limit our impact on the environment and ensure that future generations have an earth that is safe and suitable for life.
One such measure is to decouple economic growth from energy use.
Reducing Energy Consumption
Since the beginning of this year, we’ve witnessed a number of major earthquakes and tsunamis. From Costa Rica to Chile, and from Japan to New Zealand, the tremors have been felt around the world. While the cause of these seismic events is still being debated, the general consensus is that, at least in part, climate change is to blame. The earth’s climate is always changing, and, as a result of our overconsumption of fossil fuels, it is changing in unprecedented ways.
As our climate changes, so does our weather. Heavy rainfall, thunderstorms, and increasing temperatures are just some of the effects that climate change is having on our world. While the climate may be getting more unstable and extreme, it is also expanding the range of ecosystems and thus providing more opportunity for life. The ability of organisms to adapt and change with the environment is what helps us to persist as a species. Only in very rare circumstances does nature provide for us exactly what we need (e.g. pandemic, mass extinctions). However, when it does, it is often because we as a species have pushed things too far. Thankfully, there are still ways for us to adapt and change for the better. One such way is to reduce our energy consumption. If we do this, it will not only be beneficial for the environment, but it will also provide us with more economic and personal benefits. The UN estimates that reducing energy consumption by 40% would, over time, result in an annual savings of $26 billion. Even more remarkably, if we reduce our energy consumption by 70% – something that could be achieved through increased energy efficiency – we would be saving the environment an estimated $57 billion per year. In other words, by simply cutting back our energy consumption, we can not only reduce our footprint on the environment, but we can even pay for ourselves.
Energy is an essential part of our lives – we use it to power our homes, transport ourselves, and provide us with the things that make life easier and more comfortable. However, like any good thing, too much energy can become problematic. If we continually strive for more and more energy, it will only result in our own detriment. While we need energy to survive, we also need to be mindful of how much we use and, more importantly, we need to ensure that we use it responsibly.
Cutting Back On Non-Essential Travel
Air travel is another area where we’re seeing rapid growth in emissions. In 2018, the airline industry emitted a massive 3.1 billion kg of CO2 – that’s a lot of blazes! If we compare this to the 8.8 million kg of CO2 that the same airlines released in 2007, we can see that they’ve been steadily increasing their emissions since then. This may be because more people are travelling than ever before, either to see more of the world or to go on more frequent holidays. While air travel is undoubtedly convenient and can be a means of seeing new places and meeting new people, it is also having a seriously negative impact on our environment. There’s no getting around it: the more people that travel, the greater the pressure to travel.
If we think about it, air travel is basically unavoidable. Without it, it’s doubtful that we could maintain existing forms of transport (e.g. cars, boats). Even taking a walk or a bus ride would result in the emission of carbon dioxide, which is dangerous in the long term. The only sustainable solution is to reduce our reliance on air travel and try to find other means of transport. This wouldn’t be easy, especially if we want to continue travelling for work. However, considering the benefits that air travel has to offer, such as convenience and cost-effectiveness, we might find that it is indeed possible to reduce our footprint on the environment while continuing to enjoy life.
Reducing Food Waste
Another area where we’re seeing substantial waste is with our food. A lot of food is wasted through negligence or lack of planning, but even more through lack of awareness. When food is thrown away, it usually ends up in a landfill until it decomposes, releasing toxic gases as it breaks down. Besides releasing these toxic gases, the excess food that winds up in landfills isn’t exactly helping the environment either. To avoid this, we need to reduce our food waste. One way of doing this is by avoiding overconsumption. If we determine that we don’t need to eat a particular food, it’s best to avoid buying it. Another way is to ensure that what we do buy is what we need. Too often, we’re not aware of the nutritional values of the food that we purchase. If we knew how much nutrition a particular food contains, we might decide that it isn’t worth consuming. Sometimes it’s easier to eat something simply because it’s familiar – which can often lead to overconsumption. If we actively try to reduce our food waste, it will not only benefit the environment, but it will also provide us with more economical and personal benefits. According to a food waste minimisation report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a globally representative organisation that promotes sustainable food production, implementing small changes can result in substantial reductions in food waste. Specifically, they advise that if we: