science & policy

The Causes of Climate Change

The science is clear: climate change is real and the world must act quickly to mitigate its impacts and to keep global temperatures within a safe limit for the prosperity of both people and planet.

While many ingenious technological solutions for reducing carbon emissions are under development and growing in use, forests are the most valuable and effective natural asset that we have – and their potential is ready to be harnessed today. Forests also deliver many other benefits too!

That is why we at Ecosphere+ work to protect forests.

The greenhouse effect

The earth is kept at a habitable temperature through a natural process called the greenhouse effect, in which certain ‘greenhouse gases’ trap heat within the atmosphere by absorbing thermal infrared radiation and redirecting it towards the surface. Normally, this process traps enough heat in our atmosphere to keep our planet at a temperature that can support life on earth.

But human activity has disrupted this natural cycle by increasing the levels of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We are changing the composition of our skies by releasing high quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and nitrous oxide. We do this by cutting down our forests, burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal), releasing large quantities of gas from decomposing landfill and livestock waste, using fertilisers in agriculture, and more.

Scientific consensus

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international group of expert climate scientists who assess the science and provide recommendations that enable governments to make informed policy decisions. To date, it has released five comprehensive assessments of the latest climate science and data.

These reports have driven the global agreement to keep our temperature within a ‘safe’ limit of below 2oC – the maximum average temperature increase that governments believe we can afford to ‘adapt’ to.

But we are already half the way there.  Some countries would like to see the limit set at 1.5 oC, like small island nations that are already experiencing, first-hand, sea level rise.

Learn more about the 2oC threshold and how global governments have committed to keeping the climate within these limits through the Paris Agreement.

A common argument challenging climate change is that the earth goes through natural variations in temperature and associated impacts (such as sea level rise). While this is true, it is the sheer rate and scale of change we are going through today that is truly unnatural and clearly caused by human activity.

Through the work of the IPCC, scientific consensus has been reached that:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and occurring
  • Concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are rising rapidly
  • Global average temperatures are also rising and have increased nearly 1oC from pre-industrial levels [1]
  • Human actions are clearly influencing the climate.

Causes of climate change

Climate change is caused by both the loss of our earth’s natural carbon sinks (such as forests that absorb carbon) and the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (such as through burning fossil fuels).

the-carbon-cycle

Greenhouse gas emissions are created by all kinds of activities, such as electricity and heat, industry and transportation.  And there is a lot of focus on these sectors to phase out fossil fuels and switch to lower-carbon forms of mobility (like electric vehicles) and of heat and light (such as renewable energy like wind or solar).

But, perhaps surprisingly, land use change, including the loss or conversion of standing forests to other uses, currently contributes approximately 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. (Non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are another 14% or so.) This is a massive amount.

greenhouse-gas-emissions

The drivers of deforestation are numerous, and include industry, resource extraction, logging and cattle grazing, infrastructure development, slash and burn agriculture, and more. Our projects work to address the root causes of deforestation by working with local people to protect threatened primary forests.

The role of forests

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants absorb carbon to produce the energy they need to grow and breathe oxygen back out into the world – the world’s best natural technology! But all that carbon that plants absorb is stored inside them, and when trees are cut down, it gets released back to the atmosphere. Halting deforestation and forest degradation could contribute about one-third of the carbon emissions required to keep our climate safe.

At Ecosphere+

That is why at Ecosphere+ we know that action to reduce emissions is urgent.  We can help businesses, governments and individuals incorporate natural solutions to climate change into their action plans. We know protecting forests has a critical role to play.

[1] NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)