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Basics: Global warming or climate change?

An idealised model of the natural greenhouse effect.
An idealised model of the natural greenhouse effect. (By Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

Listening to news coverage regarding climate change can leave one confused and disinterested. This is because the discussions are filled with lots of technical language. Plants, birds, animals, and humans have all felt the impacts of climate change. This calls on us to educate ourselves to understand how each of us contributes to climate change, and to demand action from our policymakers.

We can demand policies that improve our environment. Personally, we may embrace energy efficiency at our homes, workplaces, and institutions. Such energy saving ways include using led light bulbs, turning off water taps and repairing water leakages. In addition, we can plant trees, use recyclable or reusable packaging, compost our rubbish, use organic manure, and use solar or wind energy.

Climate change calls for a behaviour change, to an individual and the community. Also, there are commercial opportunities.  Several organisations are financing viable innovations and feasible projects that mitigate negative effects of climate change.

Here’s climate change in detail.

How climates develop

Weather determines the climate of a place, region overtime. Weather refers to changes in the atmosphere over the short term (minutes, hours, days, months).

Climate is the weather patterns of a region over a given period. Weather and climate are not identical, yet they are measured by the same elements. These elements are solar energy, temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, precipitation, clouds, and wind.

Weather of a place is determined by measuring these elements. They are variables out of which weather and climate types are made up. Weather and climate are also influenced by latitude, altitude, distribution of land and water, mountain barriers, ocean currents, air masses and atmospheric disturbances of various kinds.

Earth’s atmosphere is composed of about 78 percent nitrogen, and 21 percent oxygen. Argon, carbon dioxide, neon, krypton, ozone, and several other gases make up the remaining 0.1 percent. Relative percentages of these permanent gases remain almost at a constant horizontally over the earth and at different altitudes.

Ozone. It is a gas molecule composed of three oxygen atoms, often called smog. The ozone layer found high in the upper atmosphere shields us from much of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. However, ozone air pollution at ground level where we can breathe it causes serious health problems by attacking lung tissues.

The earth’s atmosphere is kept stable by a gas known as hydroxyl radical. It cleans pollutants from the atmosphere. Hydroxyl plays a central role in the earth atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself of pollutants.

Hydroxyl is the primary cleansing agent of the lower atmosphere. It provides the dominant sink for many greenhouse gases such as methane, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons. It also takes in pollutants such as carbon dioxide and non-methane hydrocarbons.

How plants, microorganisms and animals interact with atmosphere to create climate

Plants and animals affect the composition of the atmosphere and then then climate. Plants and other organisms use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, and energy in the form of sugar. The oxygen produced is released into the atmosphere. On the other hand, humans and animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere.

Life on the planet interacts with the atmosphere affecting composition of the atmosphere and then the climate. Climatic conditions have shaped ecosystems and habitants in the planet. Life on the planet is sustained by ensuring a stable balance between temperature, moisture, oxygen concentration and sunlight. Studies of the earth’s climatic history indicate that climates have changed in the past.

Global warming leading to climate change

Climate change is a gradual long-term shift in the average weather patterns that have come to define earth’s local, regional, and global climates. As climate changes, species and ecosystems respond by adapting, migrating, or reducing their population.

Earth’s climate system has changed gradually in response to both natural and human processes. Gradual changes in the climate are easier to adapt to. Climate studies over the last few decades have evidenced rapid climate shifts. Abrupt swings in climate can result in devastating consequences to species.

Global warming is the long-term heating of earth’s climate system due to human activities, primarily burning of fossil fuel and deforestation. Humans have been taking down forests for farmland, roads, and cities. This has altered animals’ natural habitat and reduced forest cover. Also, trees are cut to build houses, make furniture, paper, and for cooking.

The use of fossil energy – oil, coal, gas, and biomass – is responsible for about 85 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by human activities. CO2 is the most abundant of gases causing global warming accounting for about 75 percent.

Greenhouse effect. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide—the most dangerous and prevalent greenhouse gas—are at the highest levels ever recorded. Greenhouse gas levels are so high primarily because humans have released them into the air by burning fossil fuels. The gases absorb solar energy and keep heat close to Earth’s surface, rather than letting it escape into space. That trapping of heat is known as the greenhouse effect.

Ozone layer. The ozone layer is one layer of protective gases clinging to our planet. The ozone layer absorbs bits of radiation hitting Earth from the sun. Even though we need some of the sun’s radiation to live, too much of it can damage living things.

Factors influencing climate formation

Weather moves in cycles in a natural phenomenon. Scientists have records of wide temperature variations over time. They range from temperature lows of Ice ages to many million of years ago when the arctic was a swampland.

Study of past climates identify causes of climate changes that have happened in the past to shape climate. Cloud cover, solar energy and solar cycles, variation in earth’s orbit, long term climate trends and greenhouse gases influenced Earth’s climate in the past.

Cloud cover is used to understand and predict the weather. Scientists have known for a long time that climate affects rainfall. US space agency, NASA, has shown that the relationship may work in reverse, that changing rain patterns might in turn indirectly affect global warming. Clouds determine humidity, temperature, and rainfall. Rainfall patterns correspond to cloud cover. The type and number of clouds that commonly cover a region impact precipitation condition.

Clouds cover also influence temperatures at the surface of the planet. Clouds also act as an atmospheric blanket that helps regulate temperature at earth’s surface. During the day clouds reflect part of solar energy back into space. This prevents the planet from becoming too warm.

Clouds can also act like a blanket trapping heat on earth by absorbing the heat released by the surface of the planet. Clouds radiate this heat back towards earth, warming the lower regions of the atmosphere.

Clouds cover can also limit the cooling that occurs in a region at night. The solar heat absorbed by the ground during the day is released at night as earth cools. If thick cloud cover is present over a region where such cooling is happening, some heat is trapped back to earth by clouds keeping the surface warmer than it would.

Other factors influencing climate formation

Changes in earth’s movement and tectonic movements. Ice ages are triggered by plate tectonic movement, moving of the earth’s continent which affect ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns. An ice age is a period of time where global temperatures drop so significantly that large mass of ice cover over one third of Earth’s surface.

Ice ages occurs in intervals. Glacial period interval (lasting thousands of years) is marked by colder temperatures and large mass of ice advances. Interglacial period, on the other hand, is a period of warmer climate between glacial periods.

Cyclic changes in earth’s orbit affect the amount of sunlight reaching different parts of the earth surface.

Varying atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have different effects. Low carbon dioxide levels lead to cool glacial periods at the onset of ice ages and higher carbon dioxide levels lead to warm interglacial periods. The earth is said to be currently in an interglacial period meaning the weather is warm and stable enough that humans can develop and expand societies.

Solar cycle is the cycle that the sun’s magnetic field goes through.  The sun goes through a cycle that brings it closer to or farther away from the earth. Earth changes over time in response to these cycles. This cycle ultimately affects the temperature of this planet and in this way affects the climate.

The earth and several other planets revolve around the sun. The sun provides life, giving light, heat and energy to earth and generates space and weather. Overall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that the sun likely has little to do with global average temperature rises since 1950.

Greenhouse gases are increasing atmospheric temperatures

When fossil fuels are burned, they release the carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide and other gases that ancient plants stored. The methods of extracting, processing into their final forms and transporting to the final destinations requires fossil fuels and thus produces carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The carbon stored in forests is also released into the atmosphere through forest fires, clearing land cover for farmland and habitation or logging.

Concentration of carbon dioxide. Concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is currently at nearly 412 parts per million (ppm) and rising. This represents a 47 percent increase since the beginning of the Industrial Age (18th century) when the concentration was near 280 ppm. In 2000 it was near 370 ppm. Scientists know the increases in carbon dioxide are caused primarily by human activities.

Carbon cycle. The earth is a closed system. The amount of carbon on the planet never changes. Carbon is known as the element of life.  The carbon cycle is the natural system that creates balance, and it is vital to life on earth. Nature keeps carbon levels balanced, meaning that the amount of carbon naturally released from animals and humans is equal to the amount that is naturally absorbed by plants.

The amount of carbon held by various organisms within the system can change over time as carbon moves from one organism to another. For example, some carbon in the atmosphere might be captured by plants to make food during photosynthesis. This carbon can then be ingested and stored in animals that eat the plants. When the animals die, they decompose, and their remains become sediment, trapping the stored carbon in layers that eventually turn into rock or minerals.

Carbon storage

Carbon sinks. It’s any system that absorbs carbon. Naturally, plants take in carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere to make food through photosynthesis. The plants are called carbon sinks.  Artificial carbon sinks have been proposed to assist in removing carbon from the atmosphere on a necessary scale to fight global warming.

Sequester. Carbon sinks also store carbon. Removing carbon from the atmosphere and then storing it is known as sequestration. Older trees hold on to that carbon storing it or sequestering for the duration of their lives. Rain forests are especially good at absorbing carbon dioxide because they breathe all the year round.

Ocean is the biggest carbon sink on earth. Oceans hold approximately 86 percent of all carbon dioxide in the world. The exchange of carbon dioxide between the ocean and the air happens at the surface of the water. When air mixes with the surface ocean the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide because carbon dioxide can be absorbed in water. This ability of the sea to absorb carbon dioxide in water is referred to as solubility pump. It functions like a pump drawing carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in the ocean. The ocean also acts as a biological pump to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Soil stores carbon, too. Plants draw carbon dioxide and break it down to carbon, breathing the leftover oxygen into the atmosphere. The carbon makes its way into the soil through the plant’s root systems or when the plant dies.

In plant soil relationships, most of the carbon is stored close to the top of the soil. Tilling the soil exposes the carbon in the ground to the oxygen in the air, and these two elements immediately join to form carbon dioxide.

Fluorinated gases

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) The Montreal Protocol of 1989 required countries to stop using chlorofluorocarbons. They break down the ozone layer that intercepts the sun’s most harmful rays. Without the ozone layer, the sun’s ultraviolet rays would kill all living things.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are used as a replacement for ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Hydrofluorocarbons break down more easily in the atmosphere than CFCs. However, they have a high global warming potential and persists in the atmosphere for a long time.

Fluorinated greenhouse gas emissions come from manufacturing process of aluminium, magnesium, electronics (semiconductors), and electrical transmission and distribution equipment. There are four main types of fluorinated greenhouse gases – hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride.

Hydrofluorocarbons are primarily used as refrigerants, foam-blowing agents, aerosol propellants, solvents, and fire suppressants.

World agreements on climate change

The Montreal Protocol. The agreement was adopted in 1987 to regulate the production and use of chemicals that contribute to the depletion of earth’s ozone layer. Signatories to the treaty agreed to completely phase out ozone depleting gases.

HFCs are scheduled to be completely phased out by 2030. It’s important to note that the period to come into compliance is slightly longer for developing countries.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It was signed under the United Nations to control emissions of greenhouse gases from industrialised countries. The six heat-trapping gases discussed in the protocol were carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride. The protocol provided several means for countries to reach their targets. One approach was to make use of carbon sinks, for example, planting trees that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The 2015 Paris Agreement. The agreement aims to keep the global average temperature rise this century as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level. It aims to create a climate neutral world. Carbon neutral is the balancing out between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. To achieve net zero emissions all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions will have to be counterbalanced by sequestration.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The convention has near universal membership (197 Parties) and is the parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The UNFCCC secretariat (UN Climate Change) is the United Nations entity tasked with supporting the global response to the threat of climate change.

Who’s involved in climate change awareness?

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established in 1988 to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on the current state of knowledge about climate change. It is an organisation of governments that are members of the United Nations or the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The IPCC is the leading international body for assessment of climate change. It is a key source of scientific information and technical guidance to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. It provides governments at all levels with scientific information they can use to develop climate policies.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It’s a specialised agency of the United Nations dedicated to international cooperation and coordination on the state and behaviour of the earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the land and oceans, the weather and climate it produces, and the resulting distribution of water resources.

Conference of the parties (COP) is a global climate summit that takes place in a different host country each year. The COP is the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).  The COP assesses progress on combating climate change.

Solutions suggested to reducing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases

Countries are making laws to achieve increased energy efficiency and decrease carbon intensity. Through carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy and renewable energy.

Increase in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy are the most plausible in the long term to cut emissions.

Sustainable Development Goal 7 calls for affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. Energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 60 per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Governments have taken measures to reach targeted level carbon dioxide emission reduction by 2030 and 2050.

Green economy. This is where an economy uses low carbon, uses resource efficiently and involves all members of the society.  In a green economy, growth in employment and income are driven by public and private investment into areas that reduce carbon emissions, pollution and supports resource efficiency. It includes prevention of loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Zero carbon or no carbon emissions are produced from a product or service. This is achievable by generating electricity from sources like wind, nuclear and solar. 

 Renewable sustainable energy. These are energy sources that naturally renew or replenish themselves, such as solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal.

Decarbonisation is the process of removing or reducing carbon dioxide emissions generally through the replacement of energy sourced from coal, oil, and gas. Renewable energy could replace coal and oil.

About Esther Nyaga

Esther is a self-driven and motivated entrepreneur. She is the director of Tag Energy, a cooking gas retail firm she started in 2018. She is responsible for marketing, relationships building and performance. Esther has over 10 years’ experience in executive banking and leadership with a top-tier commercial bank. She is a graduate of a Bachelor of Commerce (Marketing) degree from Kenyatta University and an MBA from University of Nairobi. Esther passionately shares her financial knowledge and skills with her community. She aims to give power to individuals and businesses to help them make sustainable financial decisions.

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