Many countries these days are experiencing more than usual Extreme Weather Events. Also in many areas there is more flooding now than there was in the past and this is causing a lot of problems and hardship. Something must be done, but what?
We are responding with new ideas, for example more efficient light bulbs or growing different crops. We are also taking better care of wildlife habitats and inventing and using renewable energy sources.
The global community has come together to make agreements on ways to better protect the environment and to react to Climate change. Trying to decide the best way to do this is difficult and there are some disagreements about what to do.
How should we respond to climate change?
Climate change is one of the most important issues facing people today. It will make a difference to everyone and for many it is already having a damaging impact. This is why the idea of sustainable development is now so important.
What is Climate Change?
Climate change is one of the most important issues facing people today. It will make a difference to everyone and for many it is already having a damaging impact. This includes more extreme weather and risks to wildlife and human habitation.
Low lying areas of the world, even in Europe, could find themselves under threat from rising sea levels. There may be a shortage of water across the globe, including places that are currently used to having enough. There may be more frequent extreme weather events causing damage to the environment and the economy, as the cost of protecting against these events and cleaning up after them is very high.
How are we responding?
Climate change affects the lives of millions of people all over the world. There are steps that can be taken to protect people from the damaging effects of these changes.
Many of the solutions require some creative thinking and many more a change in behaviour. International cooperation is also required for some of the more ambitious solutions. The latest approach emphasises sustainable development. This is the idea that we use the Earth’s natural resources carefully and take care of the environment for this and future generations.
In recent times there have been more extreme weather events than usual and many of these are connected to climate change. These include countries getting increased rainfall, more than usual snow and cold weather, or experiencing unusually strong heat waves or flooding. Storms can also be more intense than in the past.
Summers are getting wetter in some parts of Europe and this is harming crops. Increased rainfall has also led to severe flooding and flash floods at times. For example, in August 2004 a surprise flash flood caused serious damage to a little Cornish town called Bocastle.
There have been a several severe heat waves in Europe in the last decade, some of them even leading to casualties. These dry spells can lead to droughts which affect agriculture, and cause very dry conditions which can lead to forest fires.
Changes in annual weather patterns has led to unexpectedly cold spells in winter in parts of Europe that would normally not be so badly affected. These countries and their people find that they have to adapt very suddenly to these changes.
There may be heavier snowfalls than usual and they may not have the correct infrastructure to deal with this, for example perhaps not having enough grit ready to treat roads. Sometimes arctic weather systems have moved further south than usual so that extremely low temperatures are experienced where people are not properly prepared for these. For example, houses may not be insulated enough, and people may not have warm enough winter clothes.
In recent years there have been more frequent and worse flooding than usual. Some of this is due to higher rainfall, but there are other reasons as well. Summers are getting wetter in some parts of Europe and this is badly affecting crops.
Increased rainfall has at times led to severe flooding and flash floods. In August 2004 a surprise flash flood caused serious damage to a little Cornish town called Bocastle.
see here for more
Now that so much more building has taken place, especially as cities and towns expand, there are more areas covered in concrete and fewer areas of open soil which can absorb the water. Flood defences have been built in some cases, however this can have the unintended side effect of simply moving the problem downstream.
See here for more about the impact of floods
All EU countries have to make plans to manage floods and take action to prevent them if possible.
Flood Risk Management Plans
All EU countries have to make plans to manage floods and take action to prevent them if possible. Countries must produce flood risk maps by 2012 and to have Flood Risk Management Plans ready by 2015 to provide protection and be prepared. The public will have access to the information. These rules are in the Floods Directive.
This includes prevention and protection. One essential element is to be aware of flood-prone areas and avoid building on them. Flood defences should be built as well as avoiding actions likely to make flooding more likely. Emergency and rescue plans are also to be included as well as preparing people for what to do if there is a flood. Plans should also be in place for recovery after a flood.
One of the ways to respond to the effects of climate change is through a change in the behaviour of individuals and society in general. Some of these are very small everyday changes, others will take time and effort.
Research suggests that the general climate of the EU will change over coming decades and that these changes will have an impact on agriculture. Where crops are grown may also change – for example, it may be possible that vines may be grown further north in Europe. New kinds of plants and crops are being developed which need less water to grow. It may also become more difficult and more expensive to raise livestock as the climate gets dryer and it becomes harder for grass to grow.
Already people are becoming more aware of the impact their behaviour has on the environment and this is set to continue.
Products designed to be less harmful to the environment are already being made and people are thinking more about how they use natural materials and how not to be wasteful. People may buy items that are reusable or made to last for example. People may start to eat less meat as it is expensive to produce.
There are many changes in day-to-day behaviour that could help reduce our carbon footprint; this is the measure of how much impact on the environment we are each having.
For example we can switch off lights when we don’t need them, not leave appliances on standby and make sure taps are not dripping and insulate our homes.
See here for an interactive map showing a variety of sustainable development projects (it may take a little time to open)
From 2012 eco-friendly products made in the EU can have a label to indicate they are made in a way that protects the environment, this will help people to identify these products easily. This is the Ecolabel.
The EU Ecolabel can be used to indicate that a product has been made in a way that helps protects the environment.
New rules about house building will lead to houses with better insulation, which will then need less energy to heat. Household appliances like fridges and washing machines also now have an energy rating. This tells users how efficient they are at using energy which will also affect how expensive they are to run.
Energy Efficient Light Bulbs
In the EU energy efficient light bulbs are being introduced.
One serious impact of climate change is how it affects wildlife as their habitats are threatened. More species are becoming endangered, this means there may be less variety or biodiversity. Natural barriers usually caused by climate are being lost so that new species can move into new areas and then compete with wild life already there.
As local climate changes this has an impact on land and soil. An ongoing problem is desertification where temperatures are getting higher. This is also affected by agriculture and logging, but as local weather becomes dryer it is even harder for the affected areas to recover. Once an area becomes a desert it is very difficult to reclaim the land and deserts can also spread.
Climate change is affecting the arctic ice cap causing the ice to melt more than usual. This affects a variety of wildlife. Polar bears find it harder to hunt. As ice melts it affects the seawater temperature and salination (the concentration of salt). Glaciers are also affected with some melting and becoming smaller than usual.
The change in temperature of the seas affects warmer areas too. Fish species associated with warmer seas are being seen further north than usual. Increased CO2 in seas is making them more acidic. This acidification of the seas is causing problems for organisms which need calcium as part of the life cycle. In particular many sea corals are being affected, with some coral dying. This is important not just because of the loss of the coral reefs but also because they are an important part of the food chain and a habitat for other marine organisms.
In some parts of the world sea levels are at risk of rising and causing coastal erosion or submerging low lying land that is close to the sea. Low lying islands are at risk in particular. One such place is the pacific island of Tuvalu. Their leaders have been to the UN to ask for help.
There are many rules in place to protect various species and to maintain biodiversity.
Usually these species are endangered in some way and need extra protection if they are to survive.
Wild plants and animals must have their habitats protected and Special Areas of Conservation must be set up. Wild birds have to be protected as well and Special Protection Areas must be set up, in particular in wetlands, Marshes and areas used by migrating birds. To achieve this the EU has the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.
Natura 2000Some areas of land are left unused, these are called Wildlife Corridors and are planned to allow animals to move easily, to reach breeding grounds or for migrations for example. This is the Natura 2000 European network and was set up under the Habitats directive.
Biogeographical RegionsFor the purpose of planning environmental protection there are nine types of habitat areas called biogeographical regions in the EU. Each of these has particular characteristics, its own type of landscape, vegetation, geology and climate.
The nine Biogeographical Regions are called the Alpine region, the Atlantic region, the Black Sea region, the Boreal region, the Continental region, the Macronesian region, the Mediterranean region, the Pannonian region and the Steppic region.
See here for a Map of the Biogeographical Regions (it’s Pdf so it may take a while to load)
Alternatives to carbon based fuels are being invented and tested. Some new sources of energy production are already in use. These sources of new fuels must also be produced in a sustainable way. Some older ideas are being reconsidered. The EU has decided that 10% of all fuel used will be from renewable sources by 2020.
One of the oldest renewable energy sources is the use of hydroelectric energy generation. This uses water to turn turbines which make the electricity and has been in use since 1888 in the US. There have been some controversies with this too however for example when valleys have been flooded to create the water reservoirs required.
Modern windmills with turbines are also being used to generate energy. This has some critics. Even though wind is free and renewable, it can be hard to find locations that have enough constant wind to make the wind farms really efficient. There have also been reports about noise pollution being a problem, with the whirr of the blades and turbines being heard by people living nearby, and in some cases even quiet a long way off.
This is constantly under development as better and more efficient solar energy cells are being invented. Some solar panels are designed for the rooftops of domestic houses, others are used in big numbers where there is a lot of sunlight to generate energy. There have been problems using these in places where there is a lot of cloud. There are plans to set up solar energy farms in the Sahara to supply Europe with energy.
After falling into some disrepute there has been a recent re-evaluation of the usefulness of nuclear power. There are ongoing concerns about safety and radioactive waste disposal. However nuclear power generation does not produce large quantities of Green House Gasses like power plants that use fossil fuels.
Other Green Energy
Other kinds of climate friendly energy sources are also in use. Countries that have a lot of volcanic activity are using geothermal energy production, while research continues into the use of waves to generate power. Most recently bio-fuels have been introduced. Originally these were to be made from plants grown on marginal land – or land not good enough for agriculture. But because of good prices some good quality land has been used for this purpose instead of for food production which can then lead to food shortages.
Hydrogen Power Cell Laboratory
There are many sources of Green House Gasses. Of particular concern is CO2 produced when fossil fuels are burned – wood or coal for example. Further emissions come from the activity of farming and agriculture, for example rearing livestock adds to methane production.
One method being used to reduce the amount of harmful gasses being produced by industry is to a have a licence for controlling how much GHG an industry can produce. This is called ‘emissions trading’ or a ‘Carbon Trading licence’. In effect it is a quota system.
The ozone layer is part of the earth’s atmosphere and keeps out harmful radiation. Some years ago it was discovered that it was thinning in some parts. There was a global response to this problem called the Montreal Protocol. This banned CFCs – the chemicals blamed for the damage to the ozone layer – being used in industry, in particular in refrigeration. The ban was successful and the ozone layer is repairing itself.
One of the main sources of harmful emissions is transport. In an effort to either reduce use or pay for the environmental cost there are now many taxes on fuel and transport – known as Green Taxes. Also cars have catalytic converters and unleaded petrol is generally available.
There is encouragement to use non fossil fuels for transport. This includes the use of hydrogen fuel-cells and bio-fuel as well as introducing public re-charging points for electric cars.
One response is to cycle. Many cities now have cycle lanes and even free bicycles for the public to use.
One method to reduce the amount to CO2 getting into the atmosphere is to use technology to ‘capture’ the CO2 as it is produced and then store this in unused salt caverns or spent gas fields.
Another means of reducing CO2 in the atmosphere is through growing and maintaining forests. These act as ‘Carbon sinks’ by absorbing the CO2. This is what makes the large forests of Eastern Europe, Africa and the Amazon so important. Some industries plant trees or buy forests to balance out the emissions they generate. This is called ‘carbon offset’.
The world’s leaders are acting together to find solutions. To do this they have signed many international agreements with the aim of coordinating these actions across the globe.
Some of these agreements are called a ‘treaty’, others are called a ‘convention’ or a ‘protocol’ but they all do the same thing. They help the governments of the world to cooperate to find good solutions to the undesirable affects of climate change. The main ones are the Kyoto Accord, the ECCP and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
See below for links to more information on these agreements.
1992 The Earth Summit in Rio & the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
Leaders sign the UNFCCC, produced the Earth Charter and agreed to a plan called Agenda 21. The Earth Charter is an agreement about the standards that need to be reached to protect the environment, and Agenda 21 is action to be taken, in particular at local and community level around the world.
Earth’s atmosphere contains some naturally heat-trapping gasses which help to regulate the overall temperature of the planet and make it habitable. These are called greenhouse gasses (GHG). Without these the average temperature on Earth would be –18 ºC and too cold to sustain life.
The theory is that human activity is producing extra greenhouse gasses, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), and that these are trapping more heat in the atmosphere and so the climate is being changed.
The source of these emissions is primarily energy production and use, but agriculture and industry also have an impact. Fossil fuel and deforestation are two of the main culprits.
Scientists suggest that to reverse this trend there must be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is aiming to cut GHG emissions by 20% by 2020. In particular action is being taken to reduce the amount of CO2 getting into the atmosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) was set up in 1988. This is an organisation of scientists working to find out more about climate change.
Not all scientists agree with the idea that climate change is mostly caused by human actions. They question some of the theories. They suggest that human activity is not the main source of global warming and that the sun has a greater impact.
Documentary: The Great Global Warming Swindle (1 hour 20 Minutes)
These scientists point to the recent past in Earth’s history when there have been other changes in climate. In particular they point to the warmer period of the Medieval Warm Period from the 9th C to the 13th C when wine was grown in northern Europe and to the Little Ice Age of 1300 to 1870 when the river Thames froze in winter. Art and writing from these periods are important sources of evidence about the climate at the time.
See here for useful resources
The main website about responses to climate change by the EU