The house is on fire: the multi-faceted problem of climate change
An area the size of Belgium is burning in the Arctic
Not a day goes by without the news reminding us that we’re facing an environmental emergency in the form of climate change. The evidence is overwhelming: human activity is driving over a million species to extinction, many of which will occur within decades if things continue as they are. By 2050, it is estimated that 140 million people (from Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Mexico, for instance) could become climate migrants if we don’t take action very soon. On a more optimistic note, many are responding to the urgency of the situation and we are seeing an increase in the number of people who want to make a change. You just have to look at the thousands who took to the streets this year to join climate activist movements such as FridaysForFuture and Extinction Rebellion to see the growing public awareness of the issue. So, what exactly is the fundamental problem at hand when it comes to climate change, and how can entrepreneurs and other individuals do more to make progress in this area?
The key issue is that human activities are causing a greenhouse effect, which in turn is leading to a rise in global temperatures. At first, one might not think that a slight change in temperature is a big deal, but the global impact of such a change should not be underestimated. Should the average global temperature rise more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, massive habitat loss will take place and food security will be heavily jeopardised: crop yields will be lower, and CO2-dependent crops will have lower nutritional value. Even if we manage to keep temperatures below the set threshold in the Paris agreement (2 °C), the earth will be and is already being confronted with grand challenges. An example: the recent forest fires in the Arctic region that are larger than usual, covering an area bigger than Belgium. Some scientists even claim our actions are having such a profound effect on the earth that we can call our current geological age the ‘Anthropocene’: the time in which mankind has become a geophysical force.
Fossil fuels, livestock animals and airplanes have a big impact
The aforementioned greenhouse effect is essential for the functioning of the planet. When the sun shines onto the earth, it’s energy is either reflected back into space or absorbed by land, ocean and atmosphere. There, greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide and methane prevent heat from escaping back into space, to ensure warmth and life on earth. However, the mass population growth that started in the post-industrialization-era is causing increased amounts of GHGs to be emitted. This, in turn, is disrupting the delicate balance of GHGs in the atmosphere, causing too much heat to be trapped.
Three major emitters of GHGs are:
- The energy industry;
- The animal agriculture sector;
- And the transportation sector.
In the energy sector, GHGs are emitted during the production of power, electricity and heat when fossil fuels are burned. In the European Union alone, for example, energy production and consumption are estimated to account for 80% of total GHG emissions. As populations and economies grow, their energy demand rises with them. Therefore, it is somewhat unsurprising that current-day, more established economies have historically caused a lot of our environmental problems and to this day still have the highest rates of per capita GHG emissions. Although they are gradually starting to think about moving away from burning fossil fuels, economies that are on the rise still need to meet their growing energy demand. This is often only possible through burning fossil fuels, as employing renewable energy sources inevitably requires high investments.
As for animal agriculture, it is estimated that livestock accounts for between 14.5% and 51% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions per year, worldwide. Eating animals like cows and sheep and their secretions (e.g. milk) has a significantly higher climate footprint per 50 grams of protein consumed when compared to the equivalent amount of protein consumed via eating plant-based food. This is due to the fact that firstly, high amounts of (mainly rainforest) land are cleared for livestock grazing and that in addition, many of the animals we keep are ruminants. While deforestation lowers the planet’s ability to absorb CO2, ruminant animals emit gases, thereby causing GHGs to enter the atmosphere. Around 83% of the world’s farmland is used for meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy. While that yields only 37% of the protein and 18% of the calories we consume, it contributes to between 56% and 58% of food’s different emissions.
Lastly, the transportation sector is also responsible for a significant amount of emissions. For instance: in 2017, roughly 29% of the United States’ anthropogenic emissions came from maritime transport, cars, trucks, and aviation. The main drivers of GHG emissions in this sector are activity (passenger kilometres per year or freight tonne kilometres per year), infrastructure, energy intensity of vehicles and their engines, the carbon intensity of the fuel that is used and behavioural choice between transport modes (e.g. do people opt for the relatively high speed of air travel, or the relatively low cost of train travel?).
Estimations of how much each sector is responsible for vary widely, not least because countries often don’t have the resources or infrastructure to apply the most accurate mapping methods required for such calculations. Moreover, the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of GHGs like methane is often misinterpreted, making it even harder to provide an exact overview.
Global warming affects us all, but the most vulnerable are hit first
Now we know some of the causes, what are the implications of climate change on our daily lives? The planet getting hotter influences many aspects of our lives and the earth, with the main areas being the oceans, the weather, food, health and social justice.
- Oceans: as temperatures rise, ice caps become more prone to melting. This causes sea levels to rise, which leads to flooding in coastal regions such as Nigeria. Moreover, oceans absorb vast amounts of heat and so, if it is warmer in the air, the oceans’ temperatures will rise. This change in temperature in turn affects marine species and ecosystems in many ways, one example being coral bleaching. To give a sense of how grave the situation already is: in July 2019 alone, the equivalent of 79 million Olympic swimming pools of ice melted in Greenland.
- Weather: due to the warmer climate, there is an increase in extreme natural phenomena, such as storms, floods, intense snowfall and drought. To add to the problem, such events tend to have severe natural repercussions, such as desertification and a higher number of wildfires. It is estimated that the destruction this brings leads to $520 billion loss in annual consumption, and pushes around 26 million people into poverty every year. Ecosystem services and biodiversity are lost, as the amount of space for wild species to live decreases.
- Food: higher temperatures make it more difficult to grow crops and therefore, the amount of land that can be inhabited or that can be used for agriculture decreases. Altered rain patterns can make freshwater scarcer, making it even more challenging for people to meet their nutritional needs. Lack of freshwater could also become a source of conflict.
- Health: a warmer atmosphere means more smog is trapped around us, and having higher levels of smog increases the risk of respiratory diseases. Currently, ambient and household air pollution already cause 8 million premature deaths per year. This, combined with a worse food security situation (referenced before), impacts people’s health. In total, health care costs could run up to $4 billion per year by 2030.
- Social justice: currently, global warming is a problem that mainly affects the poorest on the planet. As sea levels rise, freshwater becomes scarcer and crops become harder to grow, people in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will increasingly have to relocate to other, more stable areas. It is predicted that South Asia alone could have 40 million internal climate migrants by 2050.
As the greenhouse effect is enhanced, the earth’s delicate climate balance is disrupted and global temperatures are rising, with the energy sector, animal agriculture and the transport sector proving to be three of the largest contributors to this change. The implications are vast and barely comprehensible: as global warming progresses, our oceans, weather, food security and health are all jeopardised. Furthermore, since its effects target the poorest of the world first, global warming may even be seen as a social justice issue.
Though the outlook seems unencouraging, there are solutions! Keep an eye out for our next blog post, where we’ll dive into solutions and opportunities that arise with a changing climate.
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This article tackles the following SDGs: