Climate change Q&As
- Didn't climate change used to be called 'global warming'? Is there a difference between the two terms?
- Could we be wrong about climate change? Can we trust the sources that say there is scientific evidence that proves that the climate is changing due to human activities?
- Is a slight warming not going to be beneficial overall, especially in northern Europe?
- Will climate change impact me personally?
- Isn't it too late to do anything?
- Can one person really make a difference?
- What is business doing?
- Does EU industry suffer under emission restrictions while countries like the United States and China are allowed to grow without regulation?
- Wouldn't it make more economic sense to let climate change unfold and adapt to it than to spend money on fighting it?
- What happens after the Kyoto targets ends in 2012?
- Does the EU have a long-term plan to combat climate change?
Didn't climate change used to be called 'global warming'? Is there a difference between the two terms?
Although 'global warming' was first used to describe the planet's rising surface temperature, it failed to encompass all the effects that will result from this 'warming', such as storms, floods, droughts and heat waves. So 'climate change' is now preferred as the term to describe both the warming and all the consequences of this warming.
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Could we be wrong about climate change? Can we trust the sources that say there is scientific evidence that proves that the climate is changing due to human activities?
There is new and stronger evidence that most of the world's warming observed since the Industrial Revolution is attributable to rising greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Evolving computer models, alongside increasing evidence in the form of rising temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events and other effects are in line with scientists' predictions about climate change. Modelling also shows that temperatures should continue to rise during the 21st Century, affecting nature and mankind.
Key to the collaboration of climate scientists has been the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the United Nations in 1988. The IPCC brings together hundreds of scientists who assess and peer-review studies and other relevant information in order to establish a global scientific consensus on climate change.
The IPCC’s fourth major report was published in late 2007, following six years of work. The report establishes beyond all reasonable doubt that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are generating global warming, a rise in average temperatures worldwide that could have a devastating impact on people, our economies and our environment.
The report confirms that climate change is a reality and that temperatures are rising faster and faster, with ever more serious impacts, such as more tropical cyclones and storms in the north, higher sea levels and increasing desertification in the southern hemisphere.
Over the past 100 years the global average temperature has risen by 0.74°C. The IPCC projects that, without action to limit emissions, the average is likely to increase by a further 1.8° to 4°C this century – or in the worst case by as much as 6.4°C.
However, the report also supports the European Commission's analysis that considerable scope exists to reduce global emissions at relatively low cost.
Many technologies already exist to help us reduce emissions – through measures such as greater energy efficiency, renewable energy sources or better waste management. The problem is that barriers – such as conflict, poverty or lack of information – often stand in the way of exploiting these technologies.
Governments around the world need to prioritise the removal of these obstacles, says the IPCC, adding that unless climate change is controlled, all other goals of progress and sustainable development may be in danger.
Is a slight warming not going to be beneficial overall, especially in northern Europe?
While a slight warming might have benefits for agriculture in northern Europe, these benefits will be cancelled out by further increases in temperature. Projections estimate agricultural yield increases in the EU only for up to 2°C in temperature rise, but a decline beyond this level. On top of that, increased water stress and higher temperatures in southern Europe would counterbalance the positive trend. During the heat wave in 2003, many southern European countries suffered drops in agricultural yields of up to 30%!
In a global context, the effects of climate change will be mostly negative. Rising sea levels will put millions of coastal dwellers at risk, and climate change will increase both the frequency and severity of extreme events such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and windstorms. There will be an increase in water scarcity in many regions where water is already scarce, as well as food shortages and the spreading of tropical diseases within certain regions. This in turn might trigger conflicts over dwindling resources and migration. Temperature increases of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels also increase the risk of catastrophic, irreversible events, such as a rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which would cause sea levels to rise.
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Will climate change impact me personally?
If you live in Europe, chances are that you experienced the 2003 heat wave, or some of the forest fires in southern Europe, or some of the floods across the continent in recent years. While it is impossible to claim that these events were caused by climate change, they are in line with what scientists say climate change is causing. You are also likely to experience more frequent extreme weather events in the coming years, and you will notice rising insurance premiums to protect your property against storm damage.
With regard to the future, southern European countries are projected to experience less and less rainfall and higher temperatures (e.g. up to 4.5°C more on average in Spain by 2080), while in northern European countries temperatures will increase a bit less (by around 1.5-2.0°C by 2080) and there will be more rainfall. If you happen to live at the coast, you may notice rising sea levels.
You may also be affected by some other climate change impacts if you work in agriculture, forestry and nature since vegetation and animals are migrating out of historic ranges to cooler climates. If you ski, you may observe over the years that ski terrains and glaciers are disappearing. When you choose where to go on holiday, you might select different places in the future than you do today since some current tourist destinations might become too hot or too unstable. You are also likely to see governments take measures to adapt to climate change - for example, flood protections might be fortified, new building codes might be introduced, and farmers might be encouraged to switch to different crops.
If things get really bad - if society does not take the measures necessary to limit climate change or if things turn out even worse than science predicts today - you might also be affected by a general economic downturn, and your country might have to contemplate whether to intervene in conflicts over food and water resources in third countries, provide humanitarian aid and allow refugees in.
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Isn't it too late to do anything?
Definitely not! In fact, we have to act now if we want to limit climate change. For one, it will take time to put in place measures reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and secondly, greenhouse gases are long-lived, so the emissions we release now will affect the climate system for decades to come.
Based on the scientific evidence, the EU believes that the global average temperature increase should be limited to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This would still allow us to cope with the changes and effects. Staying within the 2°C limit will require global greenhouse gas emissions to stop rising by 2020 and then be cut to around half of their 1990 levels by 2050. This is going to require substantial changes to our energy and transport systems, and the contribution of all sectors of society and individuals.
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Can one person really make a difference?
Climate change is truly everyone's problem, and everybody is part of the solution. If we are to win the battle against climate change, every sector of society and every individual will have to make a contribution.
For example, households use one third of the energy consumed in the EU (and are thus responsible for around 20% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions). 70% of the energy used by households is spent on heating homes, 14% on heating water and 12% on lighting and electric appliances. Private car use is responsible for another 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Individuals also buy products made with energy, use planes, generate waste, eat meat, etc. - all activities that indirectly cause greenhouse gas emissions.
Each of us has the power to influence these emissions, and this web site gives more than 50 tips on how we can do that without compromising our quality of life. In fact, it will help us save money! And collectively, individuals can achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
In the wider context, society will need to use a range of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They include increased use of renewable energy sources, improved energy efficiency, cleaner ways to produce energy from fossil fuels, new transport fuels, better insulation in buildings, and, in the long-term, new clean technologies such as hydrogen and fuel cell technology (as long as the hydrogen is produced with clean energy) and carbon capture and storage technology.
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What is business doing?
Business, or industry, is coming to understand that by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions, they are not only fighting climate change, but can also save money, improve their competitiveness and earn good publicity. A growing number of companies are taking it upon themselves to reduce their emissions.
For example, a big multinational company manufacturing a wide range of products in different regions of the world has since 1990 saved €1.5 billion by reducing energy consumption and installing new climate-friendly technologies in its factories. In addition, it saves €7-11 million annually through the use of renewable energy. With these measures, it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 67% since 1990.
Close to 10,500 energy-intensive installations in the EU are also participating in EU emissions trading (see next question). Under this scheme, they are allowed to emit only a limited amount of CO2 free of charge. This encourages them to improve their energy efficiency and invest in new climate-friendly technology.
The development of climate-friendly technologies also creates new jobs and opens up new markets. Thanks to support schemes for wind energy in several EU countries, Europe has become the global leader in this technology, with European companies now supplying 90% of the booming global market for wind power equipment.
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Does EU industry suffer under emission restrictions while countries like the United States and China are allowed to grow without regulation?
No, it does not. Industry is only one of the sectors that have to reduce emissions for the EU to reach its Kyoto emission target during the 2008-2012 period. Other sectors are transport, households and agriculture, so the challenge is shared. On top of that, EU governments can achieve part of their reduction requirements by investing in emission-saving projects in third countries (under the Kyoto flexible mechanisms) - so the effort to reduce emissions is not confined to EU territory.
In order to maximise reduction opportunities and minimise costs for industry, the EU launched the EU Emissions Trading Scheme in January 2005. It works like this: EU governments have set limits on how much CO2 some 10,500 power plants and energy-intensive factories are allowed to emit each year. These plants account for almost half of the EU's CO2 emissions. Those plants that emit less CO2 than they are allowed to can sell the unused emission quotas to other factories that are not doing that well. This offers them a financial incentive to reduce emissions. The system also makes sure that there are buyers for the emission allowances – companies that exceed their emission limits and choose not to cover them with emission rights bought from others would have to pay hefty penalties. The EU ETS makes sure that emissions are cut where it is cheapest, and lowers the overall costs of reducing emissions – by as much as one-third, according to some estimates.
On top of that, reducing emissions also brings benefits such as higher energy efficiency, reduced energy costs (particularly important in times of high oil prices like now) and better air quality.
But the EU cannot solve climate change by itself. EU emissions are about 14% of global emissions; efforts by all major emitters to tackle their emissions are therefore required to tackle climate change effectively. The EU is pressing for the launch of formal negotiations on a new UN climate change agreement to ensure further global action is taken after 2012, when the Kyoto targets expire.
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Wouldn't it make more economic sense to let climate change unfold and adapt to it than to spend money on fighting it?
There is increasing scientific evidence that the economic benefits of limiting global average temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C - which is the EU's goal - will outweigh the costs of reducing emissions to the extent necessary to remain within this limit. Although initially money will be spent on altering the energy sector and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the payback will be in the money we will save by avoiding damage from rising sea levels, from extreme weather events, from food and water shortages and from dysfunctional ecosystems.
The most influential report into the costs of climate change so far is the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for the UK government, published in October 2006. The report concludes that early action to limit climate change will be far cheaper than the cost of the damage that unchecked climate change will cause to our economies in the long run. It puts the costs of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would avoid the worst impacts of climate change at around 1% of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) each year. By contrast, allowing climate change to continue unabated would cost at least 5% of global GDP each year and possibly as high as 20% of GDP or more.
There are many positive 'side-effects' of fighting climate change that make economic sense: reducing our use of energy and other natural resources brings cost-savings; diversifying our energy sources, including increasing our use of renewable energy sources, will make our economies less vulnerable to the rising oil price. One study estimates that half the cost of meeting the Kyoto targets could be recouped through savings on air pollution controls.
Additionally, market players that lead the way in developing climate-friendly technologies will have a significant competitive edge, and here the EU has a real opportunity to provide global leadership, as it did with wind power equipment where European companies now supply 90% of the global market.
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What happens after the Kyoto targets ends in 2012?
A new global agreement is needed to ensure international action to combat climate change continues, and is stepped up, after 2012. The EU is pressing for formal negotiations to be launched at the next UN climate conference in December 2007.
Deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to stabilise climate change. The EU is leading the way: in March 2007 EU leaders agreed to cut emissions by at least 20% of 1990 levels by 2020, making the EU the first set of countries to commit to long-term action on climate change. They also pledged to increase this reduction to 30% if other developed countries do the same.
Many of the EU policies that are already in place, including the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, will have an important impact beyond 2012. These existing measures such as the EU ETS will be supplemented by new measures aimed in particular at boosting energy efficiency 20% by 2020, increasing the share of renewable energy sources to 20% by 2020 and equipping new power stations with carbon capture and storage technology.
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Yes, it does. The Member States of the EU adopted a long-term climate and energy strategy, with a series of targets, at the end of 2008. These include a commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 2020 to at least 20% below their 1990 levels. In addition, they agreed to increase this reduction to 30% if the other industrialised countries agree to do likewise.
To achieve this level of reduction, other targets have been set – to boost energy efficiency by 20% by 2020, increase the share of renewable energy in energy consumption to an average of 20% by 2020 across the EU and to derive 10% of transport fuels from biofuels by 2020.
The package builds on and intensifies existing measures, including changes to strengthen the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) for energy intensive plants, to include more greenhouse gases, to cover all major industrial emitters and to introduce more auctioning. In sectors not covered by the ETS – such as buildings, transport, agriculture and waste – the package proposes reducing EU-wide emissions to 10% below 2005 levels by 2020.
Other measures focus on boosting carbon capture and storage technologies, cutting CO2 from cars and developing new fuel quality standards.
The European Commission has proposed measures at the international level to achieve a new global agreement to tackle climate change and finance the switch to low carbon economies. These include the creation of an international carbon market by 2015, innovative funding sources for all countries and steps to adapt to the effects of climate change.