Understanding how human actions are damaging our Planet is shocking and distressing. But it can give us the knowledge and resolve to play our part in preserving our home.
We are inexorably damaging our Planet – by releasing Greenhouse Gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, by destroying the vegetation that absorb GHG, by exploiting non renewable resources and by polluting air, land and sea.
Of course the Planet itself will survive, but we don’t know how we humans will adapt without the serendipitous eco-systems we now enjoy. We know that temperatures will rise, sea ice will melt, sea levels will rise so our weather systems will change, safe hospitable areas will become wastelands and our cities will be a hazard to health. A basic understanding of the causes and effects can help the Planet’s population better understand what they need to do to avert the peril.
Bloomberg have an infographic that confirms that it is human activity that is warming the world. It tracks suggested causes, such as the Orbit, the Sun and Volcanoes against global warming from 1880 to 2005 and it is clear that Greenhouse gases are causing the increase in temperatures.
Carbon Brief analysed the data in July 2017 and said that “63% of all extreme weather events studied to date were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change. Heatwaves account for nearly half of such events (46%), droughts make up 21% and heavy rainfall or floods account for 14%.” See Mapped: How climate change affects extreme weather around the world.
WWF explains how each person uses up an individual amount of Carbon, Cropland, Grazing Land, Forest, Fishing Ground and Built-up Land in their ‘human footprint’. Summing these for every person on the Planet is the full impact of humans on the Planet.
A WWF talk in 2010 illustrated how the ‘Planetary Operating System’ had become overloaded and eroded between 1901, when the world population was 1.7bn and 2010 when it was 6.9bn.
Source Oliver Greenfield.
As the population increases further reducing the ‘human footprint’ of each person is the way to minimise the damage caused by exploiting the earths resources.
The causes of the damage
Too many Gigatonnes of Greenhouse Gases in the atmosphere
NASA explains how Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) warm the planet: “A layer of greenhouse gases…..acts as a thermal blanket for the Earth, absorbing heat and warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).” We release greenhouse gases every time we use electricity or heat from coal, gas or oil, every time we travel using diesel or petrol and every time we use products created in factories.
The IPCC AR5 Synthesis report p7 contains this picture of the percentage of GHG emissions by Sector in 2010
Though Energy causes the highest proportion of emissions, every segment needs urgent, smart action to bring their emissions down.
The following schematic shows the GHG emissions and further breakdown. Source: Berners-Lee talk at Highgate Society in Nov 2015. Highgate CBM lecture MBL 151122.
In the Aliso Canyon California natural gas leaked from a ruptured storage well between Oct 2015 and Feb 2016. During this time “it had spilled 94,000 tonnes of methane. This means that, in three and a half months, this one well released 0.4% of the total annual methane emissions of the entire US, and 0.04% of the annual US emissions for all greenhouse gases.”
Too little Vegetation absorbing Green House Gases
Whilst forests and other vegetation absorb CO2 at certain times of their lifecycles they also emit it at others. (Hence burning bio-fuels in controlled conditions removes decaying vegetation that would have emitted CO2) However not enough is understood of the optimum methods of maximising carbon sequestration and minimising carbon emissions from different environments. Nasa reported in Feb 2016 a study of the absorption of carbon dioxide across different vegetation environments: “Although it is well known that Earth’s natural ecosystems absorb and process large amounts of carbon dioxide, much less is known about where the carbon is stored or how long it remains there.”
Nevertheless it is acknowledged that the scale of deforestation has massively contributed to global carbon emissions. The complexity is explored by the IPCC in Ch11 of its fifth report. Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU).
And UNDP Equator Prize 2015 has awarded prizes to Communities who have fought against the devastation and effect on the atmosphere caused by forest clearance.
Carbon Brief reported on human impact on Forests in Sept 2015 “satellite estimates suggest that humans cleared around 192,000 square kilometres of forest every year of the last decade. This translates to 15.3bn trees being cut down annually…“
They also reported on the level of damage to forests in August 2015, noting the different effects on tropical, temperate and boreal forests.
- “Human impacts such as logging and clearance for farmland and mining have left less than a quarter of tropical forests intact
- One of the main threats to temperate forests is drought, say the authors of a second paper in the special issue:
- Globally, the boreal forest may have started transitioning from a carbon sink to a carbon source, and certain regions – e.g. western Canada and Siberia – may already be emitting more carbon than they capture.“
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in June 2006 report (p23) Livestock accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic gases CO2 emissions. The largest share of this derives from land-use changes – especially deforestation – caused by expansion of pastures and arable land for feedcrops.
Greenpeace reported the contrast between media headlines and the devastation being caused in Indonesia by deforestation for Paper and Palm Oil.
By October 2015 “Indonesia was frequently producing more daily CO2 emissions than the United States. “
By the 28th October “millions of hectares of rainforest, peatlands and other areas had been reduced to ash” and “500,000 people were suffering from respiratory illnesses.”
The International Peatland Society (IPS) working group exists to gather “knowledge to help the IPS and other actors to understand the role of peatlands and peat within the current context of global climate change.”
“Peatlands cover an estimated area of 400 million ha, equivalent to 3% of the Earth’s land surface. they have taken up and released GHGs continuously since their formation and thus their influence must be modelled over time. When this is considered, the effect of sequestering CO2 in peat outweighs CH4 emissions.”
Therefore there is potential for using Peat to absorb GHGs, but also the risk if this is not managed correctly.
According to Carbon Brief in Feb 2016 the Oceans have absorbed 30% of carbon dioxide since industrialisation.
The article reported on a study of 3,000 coral reefs in Australia , and, according to Carbon Brief, “it’s clear that the point at which ocean acidification causes corals to switch from building their skeletons to seeing them dissolve is likely to be reached sooner than expected in some places“. And the additional acidification of the water, as more carbon is asorbed will hasten this process.
The Barrier reefs are also under threat as “Warmer water leading to coral bleaching, tropical storms, sea level rise, disease, pollution, fishing and invasive species, including the crown of thorns starfish, all cause stress to corals.”
Too much waste on land and in the air and sea
As well as sending Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere humans pollute land, air and sea.
Humans have always despoiled the land when extracting fossil fuels, precious stones, precious metals and building materials and paid little heed to the lives of local people. But, as the worlds population demands more, and there is less left in the ground, the scale of damage has increased alarmingly.
Aberfan Wales in 1966 after a coal tip had slid into the village killing 144 people. Source Age of Innocence
Since mining began little regard has been taken of pollution of the land, but the scale of destruction and legacy of waste has steadily increased. Pollution of air and water is only dealt with when people of influence are affected – such as Victorian drainage when the Thames had a ‘great stink‘ near the Houses of Parliament and nineteenth century coal burning regulations when London was affected by Smog in 1952.
According to Greenpeace “The tar sands are huge deposits of bitumen, a tar-like substance that’s turned into oil through complex and energy-intensive processes that cause widespread environmental damage.”
“These processes pollute the Athabasca River, lace the air with toxins and convert farmland into wasteland. Large areas of the Boreal forest are clearcut to make way for development in the tar sands, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.”
The wishes of the local people and the beauty of the landscape took second place to extracting the oil. Leap reports on protest actions by the indigenous people of Canada.
Environment America reports on the damage done to land caused by Fracking. (as well as to water and air).
However Fracking is the source of gas preferred by the UK Government and its success will affect decisions to close down coal fire power stations. “We currently import around half of our gas needs, but by 2030 that could be as high as 75%. That’s why we’re encouraging investment in our shale gas exploration so we can add new sources of home-grown supply to our real diversity of imports.“
The World Health Organisation released a WHO report that “in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.“
The WHO later released a database with 2014 data of outdoor air pollution monitoring “from almost 1600 cities in 91 countries. Air quality is represented by annual mean concentration of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, i.e. particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns).”
Since then the Guardian reported in Feb 2016 that two months after acrid smog triggered the city’s first ever “red alert Beijing is to raise the thresholds for issuing its highest air pollution warnings”, thus reducing the number of official incidents.
According the The Telegraph in Nov 2015 “NOx (a generic term for nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) can be harmful to the lungs, especially in people with existing respiratory conditions. Diesels produce far more NOx than petrol vehicles….. This may go some way to answering the conundrum of why, if cars and other motor vehicles are becoming ever cleaner, levels of air pollution in many cities remain stubbornly high. Earlier this year, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released statistics showing that air pollution levels were up to four times the European legal limit in some parts of London.” It notes that, although Electric vehicles have no exhaust emissions they are currently expensive and with a limited range.
Waste sewage and industrial waste is discharged into rivers and oceans unless or until effective government regulations prevent it.
For instance Environment Missouri has a list of the pollution status of the rivers of the USA, and investigated the toxic chemicals released into the Mississippi during a year: “Most of those chemicals come from fertilizers and other nutrient rich chemicals used to stimulate the growth of crops along the river. When coupled with sewage run off, the mass of polluted water converges at the head of the Gulf of Mexico to one of the largest “dead zones” — an area completely devoid of life — in the world.”
Plastic Oceans shows the many damaging results of just discarding plastic and notes that 50% of the 300million tonnes of plastic in the sea every year comes from just 5 countries.
RT News reported that “A report into potential health risks for swimmers and sailors at the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil has concluded that athletes will compete in conditions that could make them seriously ill” This because venues such as Guanabara Bay, are infested with unprocessed waste, including a significant presence of viral pathogens.
The SeaVax Robotic Vacuum Ship is being developed to collect plastic waste by Ocean sweeping, transport it in bulk to industrial partners who will use the waste meaningfully.
The Consequences of our Actions
The most obvious consequence becoming ever clearer is that the changes to weather patterns – the increased severe storms, flooding, droughts and sea health will appear with ever increasing frequency.
NASA has been tracking the vital indicators of the Earths health ie Sea Level, Sea Ice, Carbon Dioxide and Global Temperature, showing steady decline in the Planet’s health in terms of Sea Ice, Sea Level, Carbon Dioxide and Global Temperature.
Going to Nasa’s Climate Change indicators and clicking on an indicator tracks changes to these over time and showing the steady decline in the Planet’s health.
The Prudential Regulatory Authority of the Bank of England in The impact of climate change on the UK insurance sector report illustrates how the melting of sea ice is likely to affect weather systems (and the effect of resultant disasters on the insurance industry)
Although no particular weather event can be attributed to Climate Change the frequency and severity have increased dramatically as predicted as the plane warms.
In 2012 Hurricane Sandy arrived in New Jersey and New York “At least 233 people were killed along the path of the storm in eight countries.” It affected 24 US States, causing billions of dollars of damage.
TVNS reported in Feb 2016 on Cyclone Winston “predicted to be the strongest tropical cyclone to hit Fiji in recorded history.”
Mitigations we need to make
‘Mitigation’ is the official term used to describe the actions that are needed to avert the consequences.
Essentially Mitigations are all the actions that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases across all sectors, all Governments, all Businesses and all Citizens to minimise the warming and therefore minimise the damage to our Planet.
The good news is that the same actions that reduce GHG emissions have ‘co-benefits’ including improving air quality, protection of areas of beauty and poverty alleviation, according to the IPCC (p27)
In Dec 2015 196 Countries signed up to the following statement as part of the Paris Agreement: “Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”
In parallel, countries had submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) pledges describing the actions each one offered to take to reduce Greenhouse Gases, increase GHG absorption and put in place protection schemes for vulnerable localities.
Although the sum of these pledges according to Climate Action Tracker were only sufficient to limit the warming to 2.7°C, the Agreement included a ‘ratchet mechanism’ expecting countries to improve their pledges. New Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will be submitted to the UN from April 2016, with improvements expected so that, ideally, global warming can stay within 1.5°C from pre-industrial levels.
‘Adaptation’ is the official term used for actions that need to be taken where Climate Change is likely to cause, or has caused damage.
Under the ‘polluter pays’ fairness principle the bodies responsible for Climate Change would pay all costs necessary to avoid foreseeable damage to people and properties to avoid and to clean up after disasters.
The Agreement signed in Paris in Dec 2015 whilst stating that “Parties recognise the importance of averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change……” (p25 Art 8) it was quite clear that “Article 8 of the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation;” (P8 52) The Agreement allowed for ‘Developing countries’ to receive $100bn a year by 2020 to assist with removing emissions, but the damage from Climate Change will happen in every Country, so every Country needs to plan for averting and recovering from damage.
“Our nations lie at the climate front-line and will disproportionately feel the impacts of global warming.First Declaration of the Climate Vulnerable Forum Maldives, 10 November 2009“
Source: New York Times March 2014. Caption: Bangladesh, with its low elevation and tropical storms is among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of Climate Change, though it has contributed little to the emissions that are driving it.
NASA’s Climate Time Machine has an infographic that “shows the effect on coastal regions for each meter of sea level rise, up to 6 meters (19.7 feet)” for every area of the world and the land that would be covered in water at different sea rise heights.
And Surging Seas has a similar infographic to show how coastal areas around the world will be affected by 2°C and 4°C rises.
The UK is not immune to severe weather events. The BBC reported in Dec 2015 on the flooding in York, part of a continual series of flood and storm damage over the 2015/2016 winter.
The UKs Committee on Climate Change advises the UK Government on Adaptation (as well as Mitigation) In Preparing for UK water extremes: flooding and drought it says that “avoiding significantly more flood damage means keeping global increases in temperature to no more than 2°C, while also investing in and delivering stronger flood risk management policies and plans across the country….. approaches to natural flood management, such as peatland restoration, can help store rainwater in upland areas and help recharge aquifers. SuDS in urban areas slow down and capture rainwater, allowing it to filter into the ground, rather than add to river levels or sewer overspills and be flushed out to sea. Water companies will need to work more closely with the flood risk authorities and seek opportunities to manage water at the catchment scale as an increasingly valuable, and scarce, resource.”