Understanding climate change: causes and consequences.

blog images Understanding Climate Change Causes and consequences

It seems like hardly a day goes by without the topic of climate change appearing on the news. There’s a lot to take in. So here’s our handy digest of the key points, and some positive steps we can all take to reduce our own impact on the environment.  

What causes climate change?

While there’s no single bogeyman where climate change is concerned, it’s fossil fuels that shoulder most of the blame. Between them, coal, oil, and gas account for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and almost 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.1

By trapping heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere, greenhouse gases cause surface temperatures to rise. It’s a process that is happening more rapidly now than at any time in recorded history.2 And the resulting dramatic changes to the weather that make headlines all over the world have environmental repercussions for all forms of life – us included. Learn more about climate change.    

But let’s take a step back. Whilst getting all that coal, oil, and gas out of the earth has ecological consequences of its own, it’s what we do with them that has the greatest bearing on our climate. 

Leading causes of carbon emissions.

  • Generating power for people. Most of the world’s electricity is still generated by burning fossil fuels, producing unwelcome side effects like heat-trapping carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. It is estimated that the current trend of CO2 emissions due to burning coal accounts for about a third of the increase of 1°C in average annual temperatures above pre-industrial levels. And as such, it’s the biggest source of global temperature rise.3 It’s why we’re so committed to offering 100% renewable electricity to all our fixed tariff customers. Fancy switching? Check out our latest fixed tariff deals.

  • Manufacturing for the market. Creating anything, from steel and cement to electronics and clothes, uses fossil fuels. Plastics in particular require chemicals sourced directly from fossil fuels – making manufacturing one of the key contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally.4 

  • Transport, from A to B and beyond. Almost 25% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions come from transport.5 Not surprisingly road vehicles, with their internal combustion engines, contribute the lion’s share – in the UK, it’s over 90%.6 Emissions from sea and air-based transport are on the increase too, a trend that looks set to continue.2  So, why not ditch the gas guzzler and consider switching to an electric vehicle to eliminate those nasty exhaust fumes? 

  • Lighting our world. Half of all electricity produced is used to heat, light and power the buildings we live in.7 And energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have been rising in recent years, not least because of increased demand for air conditioning.2

  • Destroying our forests. Around 12 million hectares of forest are cut down every year8, negatively impacting our climate in two ways. Firstly, because trees act as stores of carbon that’s released when they’re felled. And secondly, because destroying them reduces nature’s own ability to cut emissions in the atmosphere, via photosynthesis.

  • Feeding ourselves and the animals that feed us. Like forestry, agriculture can have  negative effects in different ways. At the outset, clearing land for animals or crop cultivation reduces precious tree coverage. Then, use of fertilisers for growing crops and the methane produced by grazing livestock combine, to compound the problem. One way or another, about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are linked to our food.9

  • Too much, too much of the time. Ultimately, the lifestyles we lead also have an effect on the climate. How much power we use, what we eat and wear, and the electrical goods we entertain ourselves with all have an impact. And the wealthier we are, the greater the impact: globally, the richest 1% account for more greenhouse gas emissions than the poorest 66%.10

Whatever your lifestyle, one worthwhile step we can all take to reduce our carbon footprint is fitting a smart meter. Actually knowing how much power you’re using is a good first step to using less. 

What are the consequences of climate change? 

The human impact on our climate extends from obvious, weather-related effects, to others that may be less apparent but are just as critical. 

Hotter, wetter, drier. 

Each decade since the 1980s has been warmer than the last, with 2011-2020 notching up as the warmest ever recorded.11 Higher temperatures make working outdoors more demanding and wildfires more commonplace. And in the Arctic, temperatures have risen 2.5 times as fast as the global average.12

More extreme weather patterns caused by long-term global climate change make flooding more likely.13 This is particularly true in the tropics, where cyclones can decimate entire communities, with tragic human and economic consequences.  

Conversely, global warming also increases the stress on water supplies. Roughly half the world’s population is already experiencing severe water scarcity for at least one month a year due to climatic and other factors.14 Droughts can affect, not just crops, but entire ecosystems. And dust storms can cause deserts to expand, reducing the area of land available for cultivating food.  

Nature pays the price. 

Since water expands as its temperature rises, the warming of our oceans has seen their volume increase. In 2022, global mean sea level was 101.2 millimetres above 1993 levels, making it the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993-present).15 Similarly in polar latitudes, melting ice sheets cause sea levels to rise16 threatening coastal communities. And within the ocean itself, increasing levels of carbon dioxide it absorbs from the atmosphere make it more acidic and less hospitable to marine life.17

Rising temperatures also pose a risk to nature on land. Globally, we’re in danger of losing a million species in the next few decades.18 Extreme weather events, forest fires and the spread of epidemics are all exacerbated by climate change. And while some species will relocate and survive, others won’t be as lucky. 

The human cost. 

Climate change factors are partly to blame for a global rise in hunger. Once reliable agricultural methods are seeing slowing productivity.19 Without better management of our fisheries in the coming years, global demand for protein may mean millions of people won’t be able to afford to eat fish by 2050.20 And, whilst in the Arctic changes in snow and ice cover disrupt food supplies from herding, hunting and fishing2, in the world’s grasslands heat stress can reduce available grasslands for grazing livestock.2  

Aside from nutrition, the threat to human health is already being felt with the spread of disease, increased air pollution, and pressures on mental health. Each year, around 13 million lives are lost due to environmental factors21, and healthcare systems are struggling to keep up. 

Economically, poverty is set to increase, with a World Bank report estimating an additional 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 due to climate change.22 Floodwaters destroy homes by laying waste to urban slums, and elsewhere the lack of water destroys crops. In the decade to 2019, an average of 23.1 million people were displaced annually by weather-related events.2 And little surprise that many refugee communities are located in ‘climate change hotspots’, which compromises their security and puts them at risk of further displacement.23

How can you make a difference at home?

Climate change is one of those issues that can feel overwhelming – but there are practical steps we can all take to do our bit. To reduce your carbon footprint at home, there are lots of little changes you can make to cut down on your energy use. Why not get some energy saving inspiration with our tips and tricks, and lower your bills while you’re at it. And if you’re feeling weighed-down by climate change, we're here to help there too. Eco-anxiety can make it hard to take climate action even when we want to. So we've put together some handy resources, to help you manage your eco-anxiety and take some positive steps that will help you reduce your impact on the planet.

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1https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/raising-ambition/renewable-energy

2https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/causes-effects-climate-change#:~:text=As%20greenhouse%20gas%20emissions%20blanket,the%20usual%20balance%20of%20nature

3https://www.clientearth.org/latest/news/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/#:~:text=Coal%20is%20a%20fossil%20fuel,the%20world's%20total%20carbon%20emissions

4https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/data-tools/energy-end-uses-and-efficiency-indicators-data-explorer

5https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/energy/what-we-do/transport

6https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/transport-and-environment-statistics-2023/transport-and-environment-statistics-2023

7https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/use-of-energy/homes.php

8https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/forests/why-do-forests-matter

9https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/climate-issues/food#:~:text=Food%20needs%20to%20be%20grown,and%20contribute%20to%20climate%20change

10https://www.eceee.org/all-news/news/richest-1-account-for-more-carbon-emissions-than-poorest-66-report-says/#:~:text=Richest%201%25%20account%20for%20more,comprehensive%20study%20of%20climate%20inequality

11https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change

12https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/the-arctic-is-warming-nearly-four-times-faster-than-the-rest-of-the-world#:~:text=They%20typically%20estimate%20the%20amplification,rate%20to%20be%20about%20four

13https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/how-climate-change-making-record-breaking-floods-new-normal

14https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/outreach/IPCC_AR6_WGII_FactSheet_FoodAndWater.pdf

15https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level 16https://sealevel.nasa.gov/understanding-sea-level/global-sea-level/ice-melt

Published 14/02/2024