Climate Action

4 Contributors to Climate Change

Climate change is a global threat to the world’s natural environments, wildlife, and human health. Since the year 1880, global temperatures have risen a total of 2°F compared to pre-industrial times. While this does not sound like much, there are many adverse impacts to our environment due to these seemingly small changes. There are many factors contributing to global warming, but here are some of the key ones. 

1. Fossil Fuel Industry

The fossil fuel industry by far has the greatest impact on the changing climate

Fossil fuels can be found in just about every aspect of our modern lives, including the cars we drive, the electricity used to power the grid, and the energy used to heat our homes. The burning of fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas contribute to 75% of the total global greenhouse emissions and 90% of the total global carbon dioxide emissions. 

It has been found that about one hundred companies are responsible for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, since 1988 four companies have been the biggest emitters — ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron, with their combined emissions alone, totaled nearly 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Since the 1970’s, these companies have known that the production of their products would result in environmental degradation, yet they continued on the same path.

The good news is that the demand for electric vehicles (EV’s) is rising driven by their increasing affordability and growing environmental awareness with the consumers. The statistics are compelling – an average sized electric car produces 60-68% fewer greenhouse gas emissions over its entire lifetime than a gas-powered car. But we should remember that much of the electricity used to power these EV’s is still produced with coal and other fossil fuels. The hope is that over time renewable energy will replace them, making EV’s even more environmentally friendly.  

If we are going to need less oil, gas and coal to power our electric vehicles, the fossil fuel corporations need to find other ways they can still make huge profits. As the world transitions to EV’s powered by renewable energy, the oil companies have found out how to do it. To sell oil —  they are producing plastic, more and more of it, because plastics are made from oil. 

This shift adds millions of tons of plastic pollution into the environment each year, furthers the health impacts on all living creatures, including us, and the resulting emissions from plastic production will just keep growing unless we act to limit them. Despite 71% of people around the world wishing to ban single-use plastics (50% of all plastics made), single-use plastic bans are not spreading fast enough and are often impossible to enforce.

2. Industrialized Nations

Industrialized nations are defined as places where a large portion of the gross domestic product and exports comes from industrial production. Countries where products derive from businesses such as mining, gas and manufacturing. Not surprisingly, these nations contribute more to climate change than less industrialized nations. 

China and America are the two power houses in the industrialized nation category. Which is why China and the United States are the two top carbon dioxide emitters, producing 11.5 and 5.0 billion metric tons, respectively. 

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and consumer of oil and the two nations together hold about 50% of the world’s wealth. On top of this, the world’s wealthiest 10% was responsible for half of the world’s emissions in 2015. 

Even though U.S. per capita emissions of carbon dioxide have dropped from 22.75 metric tons in 1973 to 14.44 in 2022, it’s partially the consumption habits of Americans which has kept the overall emissions from the US extremely high. 

America might have started to love electric cars in a nod to environmentalism but their love affair with over using energy in every other conceivable way from air conditioning to driers is staggering. The United States’ accounted for just 4% of the world population as of 2021, but the U.S. has the 10th largest per capita primary energy consumption in the world. The average American uses 12.87 megawatt hours of electricity a year which equates to three and half times the global average. Which is why electricity generation alone accounted for 25% of Amercian’s emissions in 2021, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Given that climate change increases the variability of extreme weather events, as the world witnessed first hand this summer, is it fair that the developing world appears to be facing disproportionately larger consequences for the actions of America and the other developed nations?

Land Use (deforestation, urbanization, agriculture)

All throughout human history, we have subjugated natural lands to our own purposes. Forests cover around 31% of the world and hold more than 80% of the world’s terrestrial species; however, humans are decreasing the amount of forested land and, consequently, the biodiversity housed there.

Over the past 30 years, 420 million hectares of forests have been converted to human uses, an environmental loss the size of India. Not only do forests act as carbon dioxide absorbers, but they also work to regulate regional temperature extremes. Deforestation increases risk of extreme heatwaves and droughts and reduces the amount of carbon capture from the atmosphere, furthering the impacts of climate change.

Deforestation is typically driven by the need to create land for agriculture. As much as 38% of the world’s land is split between growing crops and pastures for livestock. In 2018, agricultural practices released 9.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, most of which came from methane produced by cattle digestion. 

As agricultural trends drive climate change, ironically global warming also contributes to lower crop duration. While crops photosynthesize to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they also lose water during their aerobic respiration. With global temperatures increasing, these plants lose more and more water, decreasing the timeframe crops will be available and lowering output. 

As agriculture industrializes around the world, populations are actually moving out of rural lifestyles — by 2022, as much as 57% of the world’s population have moved into cities and urban areas. As cities have grown in population, economic development, and energy utilization, they further stimulate greenhouse gas emissions. The impervious nature of urban surfaces, such as roads and concrete, leads to more runoff of chemicals, but also contributes to the urban heat island effect that literally heats cities faster. 

4. Waste

In a world of mass production, humans produce more waste than we know what to do with. 

Around the world, about 30% of total food production is wasted either before or after it reaches its consumers. Around 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste is generated globally every year.

Food waste alone contributes to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is because as food begins to rot in anaerobic environments, it too, like the humble cow, produces methane, a greenhouse gas stronger than carbon dioxide. In fact, if food waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter behind China and the United States.

The vast amounts of solid waste (plastics, rubber, metal, etc.) produced by the global population also comes at a price. Current waste management protocols rely heavily on incinerating waste which contributes significantly to the emission of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ammonia. Burning such wastes directly puts emissions into the atmosphere too.

Solid waste that is not incinerated makes its way into landfills, which also create massive methane emissions. In 2021, landfill emissions amounted to approximately 14% of all methane emissions in the United States. Landfills also take up lots of space that can contribute to habitat loss to make room for all our waste.
Human development over the past hundred years has led to many forms of environmental degradation, but that doesn’t mean there is no hope. We can improve our own carbon footprint by divesting from fossil fuel products, consuming all the food we purchase, and reducing our plastic use. We have the power to improve our environment, and the time has come to take action.