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Causes of climate change

Humans are increasingly influencing the climate and the earth's temperature by burning fossil fuels, cutting down rainforests and farming livestock.

This adds enormous amounts of greenhouse gases to those naturally occurring in the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect and global warming.

 

Greenhouse gases

Some gases in the Earth's atmosphere act a bit like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun's heat and stopping it from leaking back into space.

Many of these gases occur naturally, but human activity is increasing the concentrations of some of them in the atmosphere, in particular:

  • carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • methane
  • nitrous oxide
  • fluorinated gases

CO2is the greenhouse gas most commonly produced by human activities and it is responsible for 64% of man-made global warming. Its concentration in the atmosphere is currently 40% higher than it was when industrialisation began.  

Other greenhouse gases are emitted in smaller quantities, but they trap heat far more effectively than CO2, and in some cases are thousands of times stronger. Methane is responsible for 17% of man-made global warming, nitrous oxide for 6%.

Causes for rising emissions

  • Burning coal, oil and gas produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
  • Cutting down forests (deforestation). Trees help to regulate the climate by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. So when they are cut down, that beneficial effect is lost and the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
  • Increasing livestock farming. Cows and sheep produce large amounts of methane when they digest their food.
  • Fertilisers containing nitrogen produce nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Fluorinated gases produce a very strong warming effect, up to 23 000 times greater than CO2. Thankfully these are released in smaller quantities and are being phased down by EU regulation.

Global warming

power plants and other industry installations are the main CO2 emitters

The current global average temperature is 0.85ºC higher than it was in the late 19th century. Each of the past three decades has been warmer than any preceding decade since records began in 1850.

The world's leading climate scientists think human activities are almost certainly the main cause of the warming observed since the middle of the 20th century.

An increase of 2°C compared to the temperature in pre-industrial times is seen by scientists as the threshold beyond which there is a much higher risk that dangerous and possibly catastrophic changes in the global environment will occur. For this reason, the international community has recognised the need to keep warming below 2°C.