S & S Decoded: Climate Change

We are so often inundated with rhetoric about global warming, climate change, greenhouse gases, the world is doomed etc, that at times it is hard to cut through the plethora of information to locate the hard-nosed facts amidst the news bulletins and politicised thought pieces. In a bid to add a little nuance and clarification to the origins of climate change, the movement to mitigate the risks of our earth’s warming, explain why it was so bloody hot in England during the 2018 World Cup and the future trajectory of our planet, I’ve decoded what I believe to be principle nuggets of vital information that can motivate us as stakeholders, humans and voters to drive the change we need.

What’s occurring?

Nelly was spot on in 2002, it’s getting hot in here. Kiss goodbye to your SPF 15 and keep your fingers crossed for a radiation proof sun cream with a thicker likened viscosity to mayonnaise because, we simply cannot deny, the planet is warming. That’s right folks, according to the Met Office, by 2070 if global behaviour is not substantially altered, the temperature of UK Summers could rise by 1.1-5.8C, meaning the unthinkable, even Scotland could be a scorcher! 

But this rise is not confined to the summer season, the last 4 years have been the world’s hottest on record, with a global average temperature comparably 1C higher than 1850-1900. The World’s Meteorological Organisation (WMO) State of Climate Report warned in November that this trajectory, if not acted upon, could result in 2100 looking 3-5C hotter.  

Why does it matter that it’s getting hotter? We don’t need to be scientifically up to speed to tune into the news to hear that the slightest increase affects food and water access, biodiversity, rates of wildlife extinction, economic productivity and resilience of natural and human made infrastructure. 

A brief recap of extreme weather events have seen 2018 alone experience, snow in the Sahara, wildfires in California, Greece and Sweden to name but a few as well as severe floods across the globe and extreme heat throughout both developed and under developed territories. I know we haven’t omitted the UK ’s beast from the east from our memories! 

Whilst the hike in climate is rising steadily, unfortunately in sync with this is our greenhouse gas emissions. As pre-warned at the beginning of this article, I am no atmospheric chemist but essentially, greenhouse gases create warming referred to as the greenhouse gas effect. This occurs as the atmosphere traps heat radiating from earth towards space and warms our planet’s surface by staying semi-permanently around the atmosphere and blocking heat from escaping. Whilst CO2 is the most heavily mentioned of greenhouse gases, there are predominantly 4 key gases caused by us humans.  These are: 

  • Carbon Dioxide (C02) – fossil fuels, deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, degradation of soils.
  • Methane (CH4) – agriculture, cows, waste management, energy, burning of bio mass (fun useless fact did you know a cow burps 600 litres of methane a day?!) 
  • Nitrous Oxide (N20) – agricultural activities, fertiliser use, the burning of fossil fuels
  • Fluorinated gases (F-gases) – industrial processes, consumer products 
Source: Sustainable & Social, as adopted from IPCC 2014 Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

This diagram, adapted from the IPCC’s data on global emissions illustrates the breakdown.  

So with this in mind, you will be alarmed to note that our CO2 emissions are actually on the rise for the first time in four years, with a widening gap towards where we need to be despite the set global GHG emission targets. In accordance with the UN 2015 Paris Agreement, where 196 parties agreed to reduce climate change, keep warming below 2 degrees and peak emissions as soon as possible. It was registered that emissions must peak by 2020, however we are currently not set to make that by 2030. By 2030, our emissions need to be 55% lower than they are today, therefore a key takeaway message from this article is we need to peak these emissions faster than Usain Bolt can sprint the 100m!! The IPCC say that by 2030 only 57 countries representing 60% of global emissions will have peaked thus insinuating many states are falling short, this includes culprits such as us Britons, the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Countries on track to achieve their set targets include the likes of Brazil, China and Japan, whilst other participants in the treaty like India, Russia and Turkey  are predicted to exceed these. It is worth nothing that whilst its gold stars all round for those exceeding what was set in 2015, this is partly because those countries had less ambitious targets from the offset. The diagram published by the UN Emissions Gap Report this year illustrates our current trajectory if we meet or fall short of Paris targets and the effects of reaching 1.5C. 

This therefore adds better understanding as to why we desperately need this 1.5C and to not sail past this in 12 years’ time as our current behaviour would have us do. Every fraction of a degree counts, at 1.5C we have the ability to mitigate and curb rising sea levels, fresh water scarcity, famine, drought, loss of biodiversity, and preserve habitats. 

Source: BBC – adapted from UN Emissions Gap Report 2018

This chart and outcome of the updated report issued by the IPCC in October, explain why we are currently seeing an increased urgency from global climate leaders who are rallying for action on this warming trend, rise in sea levels, ocean acidification and melting of glaciers. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, recently commented that climate change is a global issue in which we are all failing as we are not on track to meet these targets. His observation in an interview with the BBC was that agreed emissions targets committed to by countries from the outset were not sufficient and that countries are falling short of fulfilling their promises made in 2015. Gueterres attributed these inadequacies to increased polarisation on the climate issue due to the rise of populist right wing nationalism and the decrease in institutional bodies. His remedy for such issues was to revise the ambitions made in Paris and avoid a reductionist approach to the climate change discussion where it falls to a handful of particular individuals as opposed to as a collective. This sentiment of the collective in mind, is echoed by WMO Secretary-General, Petteri Taalas, who noted “It is worth repeating once again that we are the first generation to fully understand climate change and the last generation to be able to do something about it.” Positive takeaways are that fuelling the decrease in the gap between our current trajectory and reaching the goal of 1.5C-2C target can be done with the fusion of collaboration from non-state actors/stakeholders, local communities, governments, businesses and education. Remedies are explored in more depth towards the latter end of the article so keep calm and carry on! 

Why is this occurring? 

Holocene to Anthropocene

Having outlined the basics, it takes no genius to deduce that there has been an escalation and paradigm shift in the past two decades and that we are no longer oscillating around the point of peaceful existence. Shit is getting hot real quick and this is best understood through the concepts of the earth moving from the holocene to anthropocene. So what is the holocene? This was a ‘short’ 10,000 year period in life of the planet following the ice age that was characterised by high stability in environmental and ecological conditions that saw a relatively stable climate and allowed the evolution of humanity. The timeline is a succinct tracing of temperature patterns apres the ice age. 

The evolution of the holocene to anthropocene

Diverging from this serene state, we have entered a new phase, the anthropocene. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel prize winning atmospheric chemist, sees the anthropocene as the Earth’s most recent geologic time period. This period is human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. He pins the late 18th century as the beginning of the anthropocene when air began being trapped in polar ice which highlighted the increase in global concentrations of greenhouse gases. This coincidentally and conveniently correlates to the first industrial revolution with James Watts’ design of the steam engine circa 1784. 

In essence, we as humans have had an ostensibly large impact on altering the earths life support system. Whether this be from greenhouse gas production, shredding of rainforests or the effects of fisheries (which remove over 25% primary production in upwelling ocean regions and 35% in temperature continental shelf). And this is all before we get started on our energy consumption, burning of fossil fuels, and cultivation of nitrogen fertilisers! The importance of considering the long term implications are again underpinned by the fact that greenhouse gases are at the highest they have ever been in the past 400 millenia. What’s the hypothetical situation that happens after the anthropocene? In the words of Jon Snow, “Winter is coming”. It may not be pretty as our current climate trajectory could shock our planet into the next ice age where no tangible amount of Uniqlo ultra warm heat tech layers could sufficiently equip future generations!

These concepts of the holocene and anthropocene demonstrate a great acceleration and the ever common hockey stick effect in socio economic and earth system trends since the industrial revolution. Of fundamental importance within the whole analysis of climate change and why it has happened is the consideration of the state of inequity in which developed VS developing countries are responsible for causing these accelerations. As can be seen from the diagrams published on Welcome to the Anthropocene and the image taken from Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, the hockey stick pattern develops across a variety of metrics. This includes the concentration of greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, full exploitation of fisheries, loss of rainforest and woodland as well as species extinction and global biodiversity.  It gets more hopeful soon, I promise. If you’re super interested in this topic I recommend Will Steffen ‘Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure’ and a link to download the entire PDF is here.  

A coincidence? I think not! Source: Welcome to the Anthropocene
Al Gore illustrating the great acceleration in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, 2006

Whilst studying Green Management & Corporate Sustainability earlier this year, we were lucky enough to be graced by the presence of Frank Raes, a specialist in atmospheric chemistry and climatology and Head of the Climate Change Risk Unit at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC).  He helped us to better understand the ways to curb greenhouse gas radiation and put an end to that frequent ever increasing hockey stick acceleration like Harry puts an end to Voldermort in PT 7 – The Deathly Hallows. To do so, we need a combination of solutions. He elaborated on the fact that because our global radiation balance is out of equilibrium, we are becoming increasingly climate sensitive, hence the rising frequency of freakish weather incidents, rising temperatures and precipitation! For example, central Europe by the middle of the century may experience severe floods every 13 years and by the end of the century every 9 years, additionally extreme heat waves that used to be every 3 years will occur annually.  Sensitivity can be illustrated by the developments below since the 1950s. To put it into context, we are currently experiencing double the frequency of hot and dry years than in the year 1931. 

Source: Frank Raes

Planetary Boundaries

Another useful way to assimilate the intricacies of climate change, and my preferred way to understand our earth’s current state is using the framework of planetary boundaries. This new approach was provided by a great scientist and sustainability expert, Johan Rockström who defines planetary boundaries as the preconditions for human development. These are the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth’s system and are associated with the planets biophysical subsystems or processes. In essence, this is an immensely helpful contribution and tool to understand how we can discourage the acceleration of the aforementioned hockey stick effect and crossing of biophysical thresholds. This concept of planetary boundaries has 9 linear delicately interconnected specific conditions: 

1.Climate change

2. Rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine) 

3. Interference with nitrogen/phosphorus cycles

4. Stratospheric ozone depletion 

5. Ocean acidification 

6. Global fresh water use

7. Change in land use 

8. Chemical pollution 

9. Atmospheric aerosol loading 

I thought it would be worth deconstructing and synopsizing each one to understand where we are at and why it’s crucial. All is not yet lost, the cup is still over half full but in realistic terms we have crossed the first 3/9 of these thresholds and with the rate we are cracking on, we are ebbing ever closer to 9/9 which holds irreversible repercussions for the planet and future generations. As we overstep each threshold and boundary, it jeopardises the rest. For example, land use changes in the Amazon can immediately impact fresh water sources in faraway lands. Additionally, the extent climate change as a planetary boundary is violated depends on our ability to maintain freshwater, land, aerosol, nitrogen, phosphorous, ocean systems and stratospheric boundaries. This interlinking means exceeding one has an impact, we are still not yet aware of. On a more optimistic level, if we are able to keep in check the remaining thresholds there is no reason we cannot pursue long term social and economic development outlined by the UN through the clear agenda of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals to address these challenges.

Evidence of how have we crossed 1, 2, and 3 you ask? Well…

1.Climate Change, as outlined by the hockey stick acceleration graph this includes melting of polar ice sheets, rising sea levels, destruction of forest/ecosystems away from holocene, the doubling in level of CO2 of its pre-industrial rate

2.The rate of biodiversity loss has been witnessed by animal extinctions, increased vulnerability of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and erosion of ecosystem resilience. Exceeding this boundary is also highlighted by the rate of climate change which has seen the rate of extinction of species 100-100 times more than what is considered natural. Rockström sees the change in our systems could mean that up to 30% of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction this century. 

3.The nitrogen/phosporous cycles have been effected by modern agriculture  which require fertilizers for food production. Per year these convert around 120 million tonnes of N2 intro reactive forms which pollute water ways, coastal zones and accumulate in land systems. 

Phosphorous from mining has eroded into lakes and oceans raising levels of toxicity. Annually, 20 million tonnes mined and a whopping 8.5-9.5 million of these find their way into our oceans. Rockström and his colleagues research approximates this cannot exceed 11 million tonnes per year if we want to avoid mass extinctions of marine life and save our fishies! 

Although published one decade ago in 2009, Rockström estimated proposed boundaries, current status’ and the pre-industrial boundary which are sighted below. 

Source: Johan Rockström et al, Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space For Humanity, 2009 Published by Macmillan.

I’ll post the link to his TEDtalk in the references and here’s the link to the full analysis and PDF article. 

With such a framework, it is clear to see how the planet is often neglected as a crucial stakeholder with its delivery of ecosystem services that provide natural resources including food, fresh water,fibre, timber, regulatory functions and cultural societal benefits. This value, which we often overlook and the loss of ecosystem services from 1997-2011 due to landuse change cost approximately $4.3-20.2 trillion a year according to Robert Costanza, a leading ecological economist.

The Economic Cost of Inaction

Exhausted yet? Having investigated into our current state of affairs, the causes of acceleration in climate change and the frameworks to easily comprehend our current situation, you may feel a slight crushing sensation similar to that experienced by Kit Harrington in the infamous Game of Thrones Battle of the Bastards scene(Ref Season 6 Episode 9), but fear not! 

Through policy action, legislation, curbing emissions and deforestation, aiding developing countries, investing into renewable energy, technological and innovative advances and education, we can mitigate the greatest risks of heading beyond irreversible damage by 2050! 

A highly respected British economist Nicholas Stern, has explored the economics of climate change in relation to global GDP to defy the notion that if we cut carbon emissions that means we cut activity and the world’s production and GDP would fall.  His convictions pertain to the idea that with limited investment, we can avoid the large scale damage of climate change and defy the overly dramatic soap box worthy sentiments portrayed in media as of late . Stern sees climate change to be the greatest market failure the world has seen, as resources have been misallocated which has created a negative externality. This signifies that many have not paid the true cost of their greenhouse gas emissions, production and consumption behaviours. Take for instance the fact that the price of oil/gas/coal is too cheap for the effect it’s truly having on the environment. 

Most saliently, he has deduced that the costs of inaction exceed the costs of action. Through ground breaking research, it has been calculated that sufficient economic governmental policies globally will require investing the equivalent of 1% global annual GDP. This is far less than the overall long term cost and risk of inaction which stands at a whopping 5% global GDP each year. Subsequently, for each year we continue to fall short of fulfilling promises outlined at climate conventions and dumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere as if it was a landfill, it is estimated this has the scope to increase to 20% global GDP as we fail to act. You don’t have to be an economist to work out the preferred option. Commitment and momentum is growing in this area as in 2018 the World Bank has provided a record-breaking $20.5 billion in finance for climate action

Solutions for mitigating the dangers of climate change

So we gain the 1% global GDP investment required, and then?…

The profound notion that we can decouple growth of GDP from its environmental toll on our planet and people is monumentally encouraging. 

We can create significant business opportunities and potential for long term economic value, for example low carbon energy technologies and low carbon goods/services which can generate hundreds of billions of dollars. As a generation, there is no ultimatum or need to choose between averting climate change and promoting growth and development. In fact, I would argue that  tackling climate change is a pro-growth strategy, despite what some influential state leaders of the free world may have us believe. 

Without droning on in excess,  a myriad and combination of policies across many tangents are required to fix this situation. 

1. The pricing of carbon (implemented through tax, trading, regulation – yes that’s right peeps lobby your MP ASAP). 

2. Innovating and deploying low carbon technology (pumping investment into innovating large scale engineering/mechanical energy projects/technology/renewables/ machinery to suck all the bad stuff out of the atmosphere)

3. As a collective where we really all have the power/impetus to make substantial waves is to remove the barriers to energy efficiency by informing others, educating our society and persuading those with the power and mandate that they can really respond to climate change.  The illustration published by Meinhausen Nature is the perfect summary of how we can combat global warming with policy (indicated in blue) and what would happen if we failed to do so (indicated in red). 

Source: Meinhausen Nature 2009

It shows how we can adapt with these policies and manage the unavoidable damages including decarbonising power. It’s not a case of one or the other, to curb the temperate increase through policies guided action must be taken across all areas. This is why we must rally those in political power with the mandate to implement and enforce fiscal policies to subsidise emissions, tax fuels, stimulate investment in energy and reduce emissions. Jian Liu, the Chief Scientist of UN Environment observed that if all fossil fuel subsidies were phased out, we could reduce global CO2  levels by 10% in 2030, that is a huge positive impact! He also emphasized the importance that setting the right market price per carbon, reporting that a price of $70/tonne of CO2 can reduce global emissions by up to 40%, again no small achievement! 

By increasing our engagement on these issues with our local MP’s and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affair (Defra), in a somewhat forceful manner we can sound the alarms.  Ever fancied yourself as a political activist, or having a crappy day and fancy yourself as a tweeting keyboard warrior to your local MP? Now is the time! As it currently stands, in the UK, the rhetoric of Defra continues to focus on how the country has cut emissions by 40% since the 1990’s. However, these statements are often vague, centralised around flood protection and are not currently implementing the necessary measures that need to be taken economically and socially for our country, continent and planet. To put it bluntly, we cannot afford for Michael Gove, Environment Secretary to be skipping IPCC Climate Summits as he did in October, especially with Brexit looming and when we are not yet set to meet our targets as agreed in Paris. What this means for our UK environmental standards and legislation come March 29 2019 will make for another full piece. We also need to question why the government has invested over £20 billion in nuclear sites such as Hinkley point, Somserset when appropriate actions would have us scaling up renewable opportunities in solar and wind energy. Whilst it is important to measure the impact and incremental steps taken to combat climate change in the UK, more focus needs to be ahead on the roadmap and targets for 2050!  

Final Thoughts

Decoding the causes, current status and cures to curb climate change is no small feat I take lightly. Ban Ki Moon, former Secretary General of the UN stated “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future, but at the same time, addressing the climate challenge presents a golden opportunity to promote prosperity, security, and a brighter future for all.”. It’s often a neigh on impossible task to not feel a sense of panic and pessimism as we currently are overloaded with negative headlines and press coverage. It’s also tricky not to be decisively worried when climate change is becoming politicised by leaders of countries that are turning global warming into a cultural war, when in fact there is a 97% scientific consensus it’s occurring. 

The figures are certainly daunting and yes, our current trajectories are unsustainable and will create a substantially more difficult existence for future generations.  Think about the life you envision for yourself and your loved ones in 2050, I for one do not want to forgo the opportunity to visit disappearing tropical islands in paradise and undertake the prospects of annually shelling out for flood protection insurance and sand bags in England! Boring. This can all be remedied by actions we can start taking today. 

My final evaluation is that pragmatic solutions and mitigation strategies exist in curbing the irrefutable impact climate change could have. As I concluded writing this piece, the COP24 is taking place in Poland. This is the 24th Conference of the UNFCCC (Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) where leaders have gathered to discuss climate pledges, carbon trading, climate finance and transparency rules for greenhouse gas reporting. The conference also saw David Attenborough make an appeal to the public. The articulation of the severity of climate change to wider society shouldn’t fall onto the shoulders of our beloved David to connect the people with the science or the urgency of the issue, as individuals and a collective we need to be accountable and responsible. We are the generation who knowingly have the evidence and scientific data and our actions can be truly profound for the long term protection of the planet! The current challenge revolves around building awareness and education which can drive momentum for political action. 

But where there lies a challenge, also presents a golden opportunity in our lifestyle behaviours to make a tangible contribution. Whether it be writing a letter to your MP addressing your concerns, purchasing a tech gadget made from recycled materials, adopting plant-based eating habits, shopping locally, boycotting unsustainable brands, implementing a recycling initiative at work or even just donating unwanted items as part of the zero waste initiative. What’s more, I hope you loved this piece, the true intension of this post was to seal my future fate as a climate change influencer, so please use my codes to achieve a 1.5C by 2050.  #climatechange #globalwarmingAMY20 #melting #hotinhere #greenhousegases  #ad. 

A x 


As my infographic skills aren’t quite up to speed just yet, the BBC Science & Environment news desk published a super helpful and digestible piece with many an illustration for further and up to date context which you can find here.

Robert Costanza – Could Climate Change Capitalism? https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242884599_Could_climate_change_capitalism

Paul Crutzen – The Anthropocene http://www.uvm.edu/~jfarley/EEseminar/readings/Anthropocene.pdf

Will Steffen – Global Change and the Earths System   http://www.igbp.net/publications/igbpbookseries/igbpbookseries/globalchangeandtheearthsystem2004.5.1b8ae20512db692f2a680007462.html

Nicholas Stern – The Economics of Climate Change https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/economics-of-climate-change/A1E0BBF2F0ED8E2E4142A9C878052204

IPCC Report 2015 –  https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

IPCC Report 2018 – https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

Johan Rockström et al – Planetary Boundaries: A Safe Operating Space For Humanity, 2009 Published by Macmillan. You can check out his TEDtalk below!

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