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What progress are we making on the climate?

progress with carbon emissions

Every year, some things just get better and better. TVs get bigger, flatter and increase in definition. Phones get thinner, smarter and more powerful. Broadband and mobile internet get faster and cheaper.

And the weather gets hotter and hotter.

Wait. One of these things is not like the others. On a personal level, we may enjoy the opportunity to top up our tan in the park or bask on a sunny beach without having the hassle of flying in a budget airline sardine tin.

Yet, at the back of our minds, more and more these days, most of us are probably thinking “this isn’t normal, this is wrong”.


So, what’s the bad news?


temperature data

A new analysis by the UK Met Office has found that since 1884 all of the UK’s ten hottest years have occurred since 2002 and all of the ten coldest years occurred before 1963. The 1884 date is the earliest date for which temperature records have been digitized so far in an ongoing project. The dataset on which the report is based makes use of over 100 million historical UK station observations.

July saw the highest temperature ever officially recorded in the UK. The 38.7°C temperature reading at Cambridge Botanic Garden on July 25th has been confirmed by the Met Office. The previous record was set in Faversham, Kent, in August 2003 at 38.5°C.

The average worldwide temperature for the month of June was the highest ever recorded and the European-average temperature for June 2019 was around 3°C higher than it was 150 years ago according to the EU’s Copernicus climate research body.

Unfortunately, higher temperatures do not simply equal more sunshine.

Wildfires are blazing across the arctic, causing a smoke cloud bigger than the entire landmass of the European Union. The fires have been burning all summer in Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada and Alaska.

The arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet and the heat is drying out forests and making them more vulnerable to fire. Earth’s northern forests are now burning faster than they have in 10,000 years.

Rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns caused by climate change are increasing the risk of wildfires and allowing them to burn for longer.

The CO2 released by the fires in June is equal to the emissions of Sweden for an entire year and are more than the total released by Arctic fires in that month from 2010 to 2018 combined, according to Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) Senior Scientist and wildfires expert, Mark Parrington.

Although wildfires are common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires, as well as the length of time that they have been burning for, has been particularly unusual

Mark Parrington, CAMS Senior Scientist

CAMS also reported that the average June temperature in the affected regions of Siberia was almost ten degrees higher than the 1981–2010 average.

Meanwhile, in Alaska temperatures reached record highs of up to 32°C on 4 July, fuelling fires in the state, including along the Arctic Circle.

Careful scientists will hesitate to state that this or that broken temperature record is a direct consequence of climate change. Weather is not climate they warn, aware of the media’s habit of oversimplifying complex issues. One heatwave, one storm or one unseasonable snowfall cannot safely be blamed on climate change, but the overall pattern of worsening weather extremes we are experiencing indeed correlates with climate change predictions.


Why does climate change matter?

The problem we face is that the global climate is a complex system which provided a certain amount of dependable stability between the emergence of the first farming communities in the Middle East’s fertile crescent 10,000 years ago right up until the industrial revolution

During this stable period, the Earth's climate had mainly been determined by the activity of the sun and the relative positions of the Earth in its orbit.

This stability allowed humans to spread out and establish farms, towns, cities and civilizations along with inventing writing, medicine, science and technology.

Without a stable climate, it is doubtful whether we would have developed beyond a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Paradoxically, that very progress led us to the Industrial Revolution which is at the root of the climate emergency.

The Industrial Revolution and its legacy of a global, fossil fuel-powered civilization began a process of injecting destabilizing factors into our climate. The increasing temperatures mean the system is being super-charged with extra energy and the relatively stable climate civilization has relied on for 10,000 years is now like a spinning top starting to wobble as it loses its balance.

The worst-case scenarios for our future depend on many factors, in addition to human activity directly pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The melting arctic permafrost may be starting to release the gigatonnes of methane which it has trapped for millions of years. Bear in mind that methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than CO2.

melting polar ice

Why melting polar ice matters

The ice caps have until now reflected sunlight back into space which reduced global temperatures, a process called the albedo effect. As they melt this protection disappears and more heat from the sun will be trapped in our climate system.

Events like these could feed ever more greenhouse gases and heat into our atmosphere melting even more ice and permafrost causing runaway climate change. Unfortunately, the worst-case scenarios are proving to be the most accurate models.

If society continues with business-as-usual, widespread water scarcity, severe damage to food production, significant increases in extreme weather events, coastal flooding, mass extinctions and the mass movement of millions of refugees from affected regions are all but inevitable.


So, what’s the good news?

Progress is being made, slowly but surely.

In 2019, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, more of the UK’s electricity has been produced by zero carbon sources than by fossil fuels. National Grid announced that Britain’s usage of cleaner energy sources including wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro power surpassed fossil fuels for the first five months of this year.

In the spring, the electrical grid passed another historical milestone when it went without coal for two weeks and utilized a record amount of solar power for two consecutive days, supplying more than a quarter of the country with its daily electricity needs.

Public and political attitudes are also changing. According to a recent poll by ComRes, most UK adults care more about climate change than Brexit and believe it should be a top priority for the government.


bolt of action

The poll found that around 71% of people agree that, in the long term, climate change will be more important than the UK leaving (or not leaving) the EU. The majority, 61% of respondents, believe the government is not doing enough to tackle climate change.

The term climate change itself has also been rethought. Due in part to the efforts of the Greta Thunberg-inspired school strikes and the global protests by Extinction Rebellion, the UK Parliament, along with cities and states across the world have declared we are now in a “climate emergency”. Strong words, but what about action?

UK climate change policy progress

On the political side, the UK has announced a legally-binding target of “net zero emissions” of greenhouse gases by 2050. The aim is to give us a 50/50 chance of keeping the increase in global average temperature to a minimum of 1.5 degrees. This minimum will not prevent many of the effects of climate change, but it will reduce them.

Without urgent action we will be facing a 6-degree rise, a situation described by many scientists as a “climate apocalypse”. Even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, global warming would continue for several decades, possibly even hundreds of years. The reason is that it takes time for the planet to respond, and because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, as NASA studies have shown. There is a delay between our actions and their consequences.

The government announcement means the UK is likely to be the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions. Some smaller countries are further ahead. Norway has passed a law to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, Finland is planning to do it by 2035 with other European countries and some South American ones also setting 2050 as their objective.

Hopefully, such action is better late than never. But when will the major polluters, the United States, India and China follow suit?


What can I do?

There are many steps we as individuals can take to help reduce our contribution to climate change. From making your home more energy efficient, to switching to a greener energy provider. Save money and help save the planet with our guides.

by Damien Crossan