Top causes of Global Warming

For years, scientists have been warning that we are on the brink of a climate crisis.

We are already seeing the effects of climate change around the world, with more extreme weather events and rising sea levels. We see new records for high temperatures, storms are becoming more frequent and more severe, and floods and droughts are becoming more common.

And yet, there are still people who refuse to believe that this is happening. They claim that it’s just a natural cycle of weather patterns, or that global warming is a hoax. But the fact is, the evidence is overwhelming. Climate change is real, it’s happening right now, and it’s a threat to us all.

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

Climate Change 2021: Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers, IPCC, 2021

The main causes are undeniably a result of human activities, and the developed world is principally responsible for the greenhouse gases that are causing the planet to warm today, yet it is the developing countries that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as droughts, floods, and extreme weather.

It is morally incumbent upon the developed world to help provide the finance needed to assist developing countries to adapt to a changing climate. In addition, it is in the interests of developed countries to do so, as failure to act will only amplify the risks posed by climate change.

IPCC AR6 WGII Summary For Policymakers Cover image

The most recent and bleakest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that we need to take urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we want to avoid devastating impacts on the planet.

It is “now or never” if the world is to stave off climate disaster!

This article covers the top human activities contributing to the warming of the earth’s climate, and what we can do to stop it.

Hurricane Katrina – a wake-up call

Hurricane Katrina from space

Late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, was the moment I realised climate change is real.

A large and destructive Category 5 Atlantic hurricane, Katrina caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damages. The cultural, economic and environmental impacts remain to this day.

Katrina was one of the first major hurricanes that the scientific community agreed was intensified by human-caused climate change. Rising sea levels made the storm surge worse and warmer ocean waters had made the hurricane more intense. It remains one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in American history.

Entire neighbourhoods were submerged underwater, people were stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, and businesses and homes were destroyed.

Devastation post-Hurricane Katrina

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, we’ve seen more and more evidence of the catastrophic effects of climate change. from deadly wildfires to devastating hurricanes, the impacts of global warming are becoming more and more difficult to ignore.

Graph showing atmospheric CO2 levels - from The Guardian newspaper

And yet, despite all of this evidence, emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise, and we are not making the dramatic changes necessary to avert disaster.

Here are the Top Causes of Global Warming and what we need to do to avert disaster

1. Burning fossil fuels

Picture showing industrial power plant burning fossil fuel

There is no denying that fossil fuels have been an important part of human progress. They have powered our homes, our businesses, and our vehicles for generations. However, the time has come to face the hard truth: fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are also the main drivers of global warming.

The burning of hydrocarbons since the start of the industrial revolution has released gigatons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a gradual, but steady increase in the Earth’s average temperature.

Statistic: Historical carbon dioxide emissions from global fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes from 1750 to 2020 (in billion metric tons) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world, from more extreme weather patterns to rising sea levels.

If we want to protect our planet for future generations, it is essential that we find a way to transition away from fossil fuels. Luckily, there are many renewable energy sources that can provide the same amount of power without harming the environment. It is up to us to make the switch.

Governments must invest in the transition to renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, including grants for domestic technologies to reduce carbon pollution.

Wind Energy Infographic

2. Deforestation

Picture of a landscape after huge numbers of trees have been cut down

Trees are an important part of the Earth’s climate system. They help to regulate the global temperature by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

Deforestation, or the clear-cutting of forests, releases greenhouse gases and contributes to global warming. As the world’s population continues to grow, the demand for forest products such as timber, paper and charcoal also increases.

This has led to a steady decline in the world’s forests, with devastating consequences for the climate.

Trees play a crucial role in combating climate change, and it is essential that we work to protect them. deforestation must be halted, and reforestation must be encouraged in order to ensure a livable planet for future generations.

To protect our planet, we must stop deforestation and promote reforestation.

3. Animal agriculture

Modern-day cattle farming - lot's of cows

There are differing views on the extent to which animal agriculture (including meat and dairy) contributes to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

Some reports argue that many studies have underestimated the environmental impact of livestock farming failing to include the negative impact of deforestation.

It is widely accepted that emissions from animal agriculture account for approximately 14.5% of GHG emissions.

A large portion of these emissions is due to the methane emitted by livestock and the carbon dioxide emitted by forest clearing for grazing and feed crops that has intensified over the past century.

Factory farming

Factory Farm Conditions Are Unhealthy for Animals and Bad for People, Too

Factory farming is an intensive farming practice, utilising industrial processes and large-scale machinery to maximise profits.

A major source of pollution, emitting greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals, and manure into the environment. These emissions contribute to global warming and the degradation of air, water, and soil quality.

There is also evidence that these practices of farming often result in the overuse of antibiotics, contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the reduction of animal species.

To protect our planet, we must reduce (ideally eradicate) our consumption of animal products and switch to more sustainable methods of agriculture. At the very least we need to move towards more sustainable methods of agriculture that do not rely on factory farms.

4. Refrigerants and air conditioners

Numerous air conditioning units on a building

Refrigerants and air conditioners contain chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and they’re hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

These fluorinated gases have a high global warming potential, meaning they contribute significantly to climate change.

Emissions come from the production and use of refrigerants (with devices leaking harmful gases), as well as from the decommissioning of old refrigerants.

It is estimated the refrigerants used by grocery retailers alone account for nearly 9% of all global HFC emissions.

To reduce the impact of these products on the environment, we must switch to more sustainable alternatives that do not rely on fluorinated gases and invest in the manufacturing of devices that do not leak as much as the devices we use today.

5. Black carbon

Black carbon (soot) on ice caps

Black carbon (or soot) is a type of air pollution that is produced by the incomplete burning of fossil fuels, solid waste, and biomass. Household cooking and heating account for 51% of global emissions.

Black carbon has a warming impact on climate that is 460 to 1,500 times stronger than CO2.

When deposited on sea ice and snow in areas such as the Arctic and glaciated regions, black carbon reduces the surface’s ability to reflect sunlight. Instead, covered in soot, the glaciers absorb sunlight resulting in melting.

To reduce the impact of black carbon on the environment, we must :

  • Replace traditional cooking, heating and lighting with clean-burning modern fuel alternatives
  • Modernise industrial production and transportation, eliminating high-emitting systems, migrating to clean energy sources and the installation of particle filters.
  • Ban the open burning of municipal and agricultural waste.

6. Buildings and construction

Large building site

The construction industry is a major source of pollution, responsible for around 4% of particulate emissions and more water pollution incidents than any other industry.

Building and construction activities that contribute to the greenhouse effect, include land clearing that removes carbon-sequestering plants; the operation of diesel engines with emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.

In addition, sites are often found burning waste materials, and working with toxic materials where there are noxious vapours from oils, glues, thinners, paints, treated woods, plastics, cleaners and other hazardous chemicals contributing to air pollution.

Emissions also come from the production of cement, steel, and other building materials, as well as from the use of energy-intensive equipment during construction.

The use of green building materials, such as bamboo and rammed earth, and green building methods such as Passivhaus and prefabrication techniques can help to reduce the impact of buildings and construction on the environment.

7. Transport

Graphic showing different modes of transport

Global transportation is a major contributor to the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases.

These emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, such as petrol and diesel. As well as adding more greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere transportation is adding significant air pollutants impacting human health.

If you need to have a car, electric vehicles are a cleaner alternative to petrol and diesel cars. Electric vehicles produce no emissions from the exhaust, so they are better for the environment.

Electric vehicles are not without their issues too as they still require power from the grid which in most places comes from fossil fuels.

However, as the world moves to renewable energy sources, electric vehicles will become increasingly cleaner.

For heavy transportation, such as planes, trucks and boats, Green Hydrogen technologies can help move us away from our dependence on hydrocarbon-based fuels.

If possible, live car-free or use an electric vehicle, and take fewer flights.

8. Waste

Landfill site with heavy plant machinery

The waste produced by humans is a major source of greenhouse gases. These emissions come from the decomposition of organic waste, such as food and paper, in landfill sites that are all over the earth’s surface.

Recycling is a more sustainable way to manage waste than dumping it at landfill sites.

Recycling reduces the need for new materials, and it helps to reduce gas emissions from landfill sites.

In addition, recycling can help to create new jobs and boost the economy.

9. Consumerism 

A warehouse with lots of boxes for delivery

Consumerism is one of the main drivers of waste.

We live in a throwaway society, where we buy new products and then dispose of them when they are no longer needed.

The circular economy is a more sustainable way to produce and consume goods. In the circular economy, products are designed to be reused, repaired, or recycled instead of being thrown away.

The sharing economy is another more sustainable way to consume goods. In the sharing economy, people share resources instead of owning them. For example, instead of owning a car, you could share a car with your neighbours.

10. Oil Drilling

Oil drilling pumps at sunset

Oil drilling release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Methane emissions are the second-largest cause of global warming today.

Methane is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide, so oil drilling has a significant impact on global warming.

Almost 33% of all methane emissions from human activity come from fossil fuel operations, with oil production responsible for around 40% of this – the remaining 60% from leaks across the natural gas value chain.

Flaring is the burning of gas that is released during the drilling of oil wells. This gas is typically composed of methane. When this gas is burned, it releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Oilrig at sea flaring gas

Human versus natural causes

One misconception about global warming is that it is a natural phenomenon and that humans are not responsible for it.

Some say that the Earth has gone through natural cycles of warming and cooling for millions of years, long before humans appeared on the scene.

Others say that while the Earth may have experienced natural cycles of warming and cooling in the past, the current episode of global warming is different. They argue that it is largely caused by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, and that it poses a serious threat to our planet.

There is a lot of evidence to support the claim that humans are responsible for climate change.

For example, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher now than it has been for 800,000 years. And we know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

In addition, the climate is changing more rapidly now than it has in the past. The rate of warming over the last century, and in particular the past several decades, is unprecedented.

The evidence is conclusive to all but the blind, average global temperature and global average sea level have increased since the industrial revolution began, and more so in the last 50 years, that can’t be explained without factoring in human activity.

Top Causes of Global Warming - temperature increased 2011-2021 average vs 1956-1976 baseline

The IPCC 2013 fifth assessment report stated in its summary for policymakers that it is:

extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together

Global average temperature

How will different parts of the world be affected?

The impacts of climate change will vary from region to region. Some locations will warm up more than others, some would receive greater amounts of rain, and some would go years without seeing a drop in precipitation.

If temperatures rise beyond 1.5C:

  • The UK and Europe will see more extreme rainfall and be vulnerable to flooding
  • Pacific Islands could disappear under rising sea levels
  • African Nations will suffer more droughts and food shortages
  • Australia will see increased extremes of heat and drought
  • The Middle East will experience more extreme heatwaves and arable lands could turn to desert
  • The US will see some areas impacted by intense storms and hurricanes, while other regions will suffer heatwaves and drought

Natural processes

Since the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, our climate has been changing. Natural causes have been responsible for these changes, until recently. Volcanic eruptions, variations in the Earth’s orbit, and changes in the Earth’s crust (known as plate tectonics) are all types of natural factors that influence climate.

  • The Earth’s orbit. The sun is the primary driver of climate change on Earth, and with tiny variations in the Earth’s orbit solar energy reaching earth increases and decreases.
  • Solar irradiance. In the past, changes in the sun’s energy have affected Earth’s temperature. We are not seeing any evidence of changes in solar energy being powerful enough to impact our climate. Any increase in solar energy would cause the entire planet’s atmosphere to warm, but we only notice warming in the lower atmosphere.
  • Volcanoes. Volcanic eruptions release large amounts of heat and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which can contribute to global warming.
  • Plate tectonics. The movement of Earth’s plates releases greenhouse gases from the Earth’s interior, which can contribute to global warming.
  • El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The ENSO cycle, which is a pattern of fluctuating water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, is what causes El Niño and La Niña events. The planetary temperature rises during an ‘El Niño’ year and falls during a ‘La Niña’ year. These cycles can have a brief cooling or warming effect on the global temperature for a few months to years, but they cannot explain the current temperature rise.

Over the last million years, the Earth has gone through several ice ages, which are known as glacial and interglacial periods. The progression of glacial and interglacial cycles is guided by variations in the planet’s orbit about the sun.

The Pleistocene epoch is an era that includes the last ice age. This time period started about 2.6 million years ago and ended about 11,700 years ago.

For a few thousand years, Earth has been in an interglacial period with constant temperatures.

Despite this, and since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, global temperatures have risen at a far greater rate. Human activity is the main cause of these climatic shifts as a result of burning hydrocarbon-based fuels and altering how land is used.

Due to their scale, it is hard to deny that natural sources of greenhouse gas and natural systems have some impact on global temperature and the greenhouse effect. However, on their own, the natural process listed above, such as Volcanoes and changes in solar activity, would have caused the Earth’s climate to cool down over the past 50 years.

The data available today simply refute that natural processes alone are the causes of climate change that we see today.

Carbon Brief’s analysis finds that: Since 1850, almost all the long-term warming can be explained by greenhouse gas emissions and other human activities. And if the emissions of GHGs alone were warming the planet, we would expect to see about a third more warming in global temperatures than has occurred. They are offset by cooling from human-produced atmospheric aerosols.

The scientific consensus is that anthropogenic activity has a very significant negative effect on our climate system and the Earth’s climate is not being significantly affected by natural climate fluctuations.

IPCC conclusions

The third part of the IPCC’s 6th assessment report, known as Working Group III (WG3), provides a detailed view of possible futures.

The report details:

  • To stabilise global temperatures, CO2 levels need to reach net-zero
  • Current policies have us on a track for a 3C rise in temperature by 2100
  • Reaching net-zero CO2 emissions in the early 2070s could limit temperature rise to less than 2C
  • Reaching net-zero CO2 emissions in the early 2050s could limit temperature rise to 1.5C
  • Nowhere is immune. No inhabited region will escape the impacts of rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather.
  • Between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people – live in areas “highly vulnerable” to climate change. That is roughly half the global population.
  • Today, millions of people face food and water shortages owing to climate change. Without change, this will only get worse.
  • The extinction of species, from trees to corals, is already happening.
  • 1.5C above pre-industrial levels constitutes a “critical level” beyond which the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate strongly and some become irreversible.
  • With temperature rises of more than 1.5C global coastal areas and small, low-lying islands, face severe flooding and ruin.
  • Key ecosystems are becoming saturated and are losing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Different scenarios are presented in the report with options to reduce emissions:

  • Massively reduce fossil fuel use and replace it with renewable energy sources
  • Phase-out unabated coal use and coal power plants
  • Reduce energy demand
  • The need and use of Carbon Dioxide Removal technology (CDRs)
  • Widespread electrification of transport and heat

Top Causes of Global Warming – [Infographic]

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Top 10 causes of Global Warming Infographic

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