How we're destroying our home: Causes of climate change
"Human-induced climate change [...] has caused widespread negative impacts [...] on nature and people [...]."
This is how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began its latest report, which summarizes the latest scientific findings on climate change. According to the report, the role of human influence cannot be denied. The logical consequence is that we humans can stop climate change. The following article explains where we need to start, what we are currently doing wrong and what the situation in Germany looks like.
What is climate change?
The word "climate change" comes up all the time and in a wide variety of contexts. That's why we'll start by explaining what climate change means in a way that's easy to understand. First of all, climate must be distinguished from weather. Weather is the measured state of the atmosphere at a particular time in a particular place. In contrast, we talk about climate when we mean the weather over a longer period of time of at least 30 years.
Climate change therefore does not mean short-term fluctuations, but constant changes. Such changes have always existed. In the history of our planet, for example, there have been strong cooling periods and even ice ages. This natural climate change is caused, among other things, by events such as volcanic eruptions or meteorite impacts. Even changes in the Earth's orbit, which cause us to approach or move away from the sun, have their influence.
However, the latest developments show a clear warming of our earth, which cannot be explained by natural variations. Direct measurements since the middle of the 19th century, as well as modern satellite, air pressure, precipitation and radiation measurements record more rapid changes than are naturally possible. Such a rapid development is different from anything we've seen in the last 65 million years!
Contrary to initial assumptions, it cannot be due to the influence of events such as volcanic eruptions or the sun. Their effects are not strong enough and have been rather cooling in recent decades. Rather, various approaches lead us to believe that the observed changes are directly related to human activities. The following graph is an example: it suggests that the average temperature of the last 1,000 years is increasing significantly. The violent acceleration of the last decades falls on the age of industrialization by us humans.
The fact that the average global temperature has risen by 1 degree in the last century and that this effect is becoming ever stronger is due to human behavior. Therefore, one speaks of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. Because of the rapid pace of climate change, "climate catastrophe" is a more appropriate word. "Climate change" has become strongly established, however, so it is used more frequently.
Why is our Earth warm?
Another term that keeps coming up in this context is the greenhouse effect. You should know that the natural greenhouse effect makes it possible for us to live on this planet at all. Without this mechanism, we would have a global average temperature of -18°C!
The greenhouse effect explained:
A wide variety of gases are collected in the atmosphere around our Earth, among which are greenhouse gases. These include, for example, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
Greenhouse gases create comfortable temperatures for us. The sun's rays reach us through the earth's atmosphere and are reflected by bright areas on the earth's surface. However, not all of these reflected rays make it back through the atmosphere into space, but are absorbed by the greenhouse gases. As a result, the greenhouse gases heat up and send heat in the form of long-wave rays to the Earth's surface. This results in an average temperature of + 14°C on earth.
And why is the Earth heating up?
Especially since industrialization, the natural greenhouse effect has been joined by another man-made one. In addition to the greenhouse gases that already exist, we are emitting more into the atmosphere. So that you get an idea of the development: Compared to the beginning of the 20th century, the CO2 concentration is about 40% higher today!
The increased amount greenhouse gases means that more heat is being radiated back to Earth from the atmosphere. Thus, our increased greenhouse gas emissions are leading to the rapid warming of the Earth.
You can read about the exact effects of this in our article on the consequences of climate change.
Which greenhouse gases are the cause?
The word carbon dioxide (CO2) is probably ringing in your ears already. But did you know that we absolutely need CO2 to live? CO2 is essential for the survival of plants. They absorb it and produce oxygen, which ultimately makes our life possible. However, plants are not able to filter large amounts of CO2 from the air. This is why CO2 now accounts for 61% of the greenhouse effect. The high concentration in the atmosphere is mainly due to our energy production.
A lot of carbon (C) is stored in the fossil fuels oil, gas and coal. When we burn these energy sources to generate electricity and heat, oxygen (O2) is added to the carbon that is released. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is thus produced.
Traffic, too, releases large quantities, especially airplanes and cars. Fortunately, we have so-called CO2 sinks on our planet in the form of forests, moors and the oceans. A great deal of carbon can be stored there. For agricultural use, we are clearing these forests and draining peatlands. In this way, we not only lose important carbon reservoirs, we also release CO2 that has long been stored into the atmosphere.
You may have read that our CO2 emissions dropped at the beginning of the Corona Pandemic. Nevertheless, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has continued to rise. This can be explained by the long retention time of CO2 in the atmosphere. So our emissions must be constantly reduced for this to have the desired effects.
Another greenhouse gas is methane (CH4). There is nowhere near as much methane in the atmosphere as CO2. However, effects of methane on global warming are 21 times stronger than those of CO2. Therefore, this greenhouse gas accounts for 15% of the greenhouse effect and is produced by factory farming (you had the right hunch: mainly by the farting of ruminants!) and by rice cultivation. In Germany, 62% of methane emissions come from agriculture.
There are also chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC's for short, whose contribution to the greenhouse effect is estimated at 11%. CFC's used to be found in many sprays and extinguishing agents. Their influence today is mainly due to the fact that they are still released from old packaging and buildings.
The last greenhouse gas that should be mentioned is nitrous oxide (N2O). The strength of nitrous oxide also exceeds that of CO2: it has an incredible 310-fold effect on global warming! It is responsible for about 4% of the greenhouse effect and is released during the combustion of biomass and the use of artificial fertilizers. Nitrous oxide is also largely emitted in Germany by agriculture. Its share of nitrous oxide emissions is 79%.
So, basically, the cause of the current global warming is the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
But why are greenhouse gases always increasing?
So let's move on to the causes of global warming. We've already briefly touched on some of the areas where immense emissions of greenhouse gases are occurring. These include:
- Fossil fuel combustion: This occurs both to generate electricity and heat, and in the use of gasoline, for example.
- Livestock: Agriculture is a culprit for several reasons, as it not only produces methane, but also CO2. These are produced due to breeding, transport and keeping of livestock. In addition, the animals need food, the cultivation of which further requires energy and causes the clearing of forest areas. It must also be taken into account that by clearing forests we not only take away the trees' ability to filter CO2, but additionally release carbon long stored in the trees. The Worldwatch Institute therefore holds livestock responsible for 51% of all global greenhouse gases. Far ahead is land use for cattle breeding and for the production of dairy products.
- Transport: You have probably long been aware that means of transportation emit CO2. With the help of this graph, you can compare the greenhouse gas emissions of different means of transport.
Greenhouse gas emissions by these sectors continue to increase for several reasons:
- Growing world population: More people means more electricity, heat, food, more waste produced and more consumption. As a result, resources are consumed even faster, agricultural cultivation methods become more intensive and forest areas are cleared even faster. You can learn more about the Amazon rainforest case here.
- Rising standard of living: Global prosperity is rising. This means that more electricity is being used, more people are flying, driving and consuming. The consumption of animal products is also increasing.
- Lack of a sense of responsibility: Industrialized nations are not aware of their luxurious lifestyles or do not want to give them up. The contribution of developing countries to greenhouse gas emissions is small, so they can do little.
What does this look like in Germany?
Germany's CO2 emissions are unfortunately higher than the global average. The sectors can be ranked by greenhouse gas emissions as follows:
- Energy industry (2021: 30 % of greenhouse gas emissions): The German energy industry needs to go green, also to achieve climate neutrality in other areas. Our energy consumption in everyday life happens unconsciously and out of habit, but can be reduced super easily! Utopia has some tips with which you can save energy in everyday life.
- Industry (25 %): Steel and cement are the main contributors here.
- Transport (20 %): The status quo in transport can be explained by lobbying and our consumption. The good thing is that each and every one of us can do something about it by relying on bicycles, rail transport and electric cars, and by avoiding airplanes.
- Buildings (living and working; 15 %): Better insulation and insulation is needed. WE should also refocus on heating more with electric heat pumps rather than oil and gas.
- Agriculture (8 %): As consumers, this is the aspect we can most easily influence.
- Waste (2 %): Methane emissions occur when organic waste decays. Waste has a small part in total emissions, but is difficult to bring to 0.
Glimmer of hope: How can we fight climate change?
The light on the horizon is ourselves: Since we are causing climate change, we can also save our planet. Another glimmer of hope is that it is not the necessary technology that is failing, but us. Moreover, old economic systems contrast with new, innovative creations that have proposed exciting solutions.
The goal of climate neutrality calls for greenhouse gas emissions to be 0 on balance. To achieve this, our energy systems must first and foremost shift from fossil fuels to carbon-free sources. All power to the wind and the sun! In addition, forest clearing must stop - here are ways we can do that. Nevertheless, emitted greenhouse gases must be taken out of the atmosphere.
You can also mitigate climate change with small changes in your behavior:
- Since we can't stop cows from farting, you can swap your meat and dairy consumption for healthy plant-based products. Start with your next meal!
- In addition, the following applies to all foods: eat up, store, buy regionally and seasonally. Here you can find a seasonal calendar that shows you which fruits and vegetables are the most climate-friendly at which time.
- Save electricity by using LED lights and disconnecting your devices from the power supply. More simple ideas can be found here.
- Enjoy fresh air and exercise by swapping the car for the bike. In case of rain, take the train!
- Recycle! This applies not only to plastic bottles, but also to food (e.g. via TooGoodToGo) or clothing and furniture (e.g. with nebenan.de and ebay). This way you can even save money!
- The next winter is coming for sure. Instead of turning up the heat, put on a thick sweater. Here's the rule: every degree less = 6% less energy.
- Use eco paper - Look for the Blue Angel label on toilet, kitchen and cosmetic paper.
- Plant trees! If you can't do it yourself, you can also donate to reforestation projects like ours in Brandenburg, Romania, Colombia or Peru. Click here for the form!
- The WWF has compiled a list of other small things that are easy to implement in day-to-day life.
So, all in all, the current climate change is man-made. This long-term increase in average temperatures comes from the fact that we are increasing the natural greenhouse effect by producing too many gases such as CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. This happens when we burn raw materials for energy production in transport, in industry, for our buildings or in livestock farming. The emissions increase with the world population and our standard of living, while the sense of responsibility decreases. We ourselves represent the glimmer of hope: Since we are the cause of climate change, we can stop it. You will find some inspiration in this blog entry.
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Blog article written by Emily Waltermann