Climate Change and Global Warming – An Introduction*
By: Ali Attari
For the Arabic version, please click here.
Climate change has become an issue of increased importance around the world. Global efforts to stabilize this phenomenon have been underway for some time, but have not been able to effectively contain it. In order to properly mitigate the effects of climate change, one must properly understand its causes and effects.
Before going into further detail, it is important to make the distinction between “climate change” and “global warming” as they are often used interchangeably. The modern definition of global warming describes the rise in the earth’s average surface temperatures due to anthropogenic (pollution resulting from human actions) activities that emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), and is one of the causes of climate change. Climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon that describes changes in the earth’s weather patterns, which may be exacerbated by human activities and global warming. These patterns may lead to an increase in extreme weather incidents such as category-five hurricanes and sea-level rise.
Evidence suggests that our planet has gone through several natural climate oscillations that resulted in severe cooling and heating events (we are currently still experiencing a heating event known as the Holocene). These transformed the earth’s landscape dramatically. North America was almost completely enveloped in ice during the most recent ice age, which took place around 10,000 - 11,500 years ago, and the current Holocene period was responsible for much of that retreat, which is still ongoing. Of course, natural climate change is beyond our control as humans, but it goes through cycles that are somewhat predictable using a variety of historical data sources such as tree ring analysis and ice core samples.
Earth has been dubbed the “Goldilocks Planet” (after the nineteenth-century fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears) because it offers the ideal living conditions for humans, i.e. it is neither too hot nor too cold, and contains the essential elements for life such as liquid water. The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is vital for this ‘Goldilocks’ state because it keeps the earth’s temperature at what we deem livable. In fact, without the greenhouse effect (which will be explained below), the earth’s average temperature would be -18°C. Unfortunately, what we are seeing today is an unusual increase in the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and most scientific studies point towards human activities as the main source behind this increase.
The way the greenhouse effect works is similar to how agricultural greenhouses work. An agricultural greenhouse is made of transparent materials - mainly plastic or glass, and the sun’s rays penetrate it to reach the plants inside. When these rays are reflected, they lose some of their energy and are relegated to infra-red rays, which do not have enough energy to leave the greenhouse. This causes the greenhouse to remain warm, providing an ideal environment for plant growth. Many human activities (see the accompanying figure) emit GHGs such as carbon dioxide, methane, and many more. These gases function in a similar manner to agricultural greenhouse surfaces, and reflect some of the outgoing infra-red rays back to the earth’s surface, thus increasing its surface temperature. Of course, the more GHG molecules are in the atmosphere, the more this effect increases.
As shown in the pie-chart below, many of our daily activities contribute to global warming. The items on the pie-chart are to be expected, although it may come as a surprise that the agricultural industry is one of the most polluting economic activities out there. Livestock operations (particularly relating to the dairy industry), and crop cultivation (through the transformation of forested land) are the main culprits in this sector. As for industry, its emissions primarily come from on-site energy production and from waste management activities that may include emissions from chemicals used in the industrial process. Transportation (Jordan’s biggest emitter) emissions result from any fossil fuels being burned for air, road, or marine transport. Finally, buildings, which occupy the smallest piece of the pie, emit greenhouse gases by on-site energy production used in activities such as cooking or heating and cooling homes.
Fortunately, there are many things that we can do as individuals and as countries in order to lower our emissions. We will focus on what we can do to lower our emissions in cities, since that is where the vast majority of the world’s population are increasingly located.
International conferences and treaties such as the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference and the Paris Agreement both aim at getting different countries to commit to greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction targets. Different countries may choose to approach this issue in various ways, making use of their strengths and weaknesses. Some countries may focus their efforts on renewable energy production; others may employ strict environmental regulations on industry and transport; and some will focus on sustainable agricultural practices. Many countries will of course implement a combination of strategies in order to reach their targets. It is worth mentioning, however, that none of these treaties are legally binding. Many countries have not been able to reach their targets, and some have even dropped out of such agreements.
Every person has what is known as a carbon footprint. The carbon footprint represents the total amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted by an individual, organization, or activity after converting them to their carbon dioxide equivalent. There are various websites that can help you calculate your estimated carbon footprint such as www.carbonfootprint.com. As urban dwellers, we engage in many activities that are energy intensive, and emit a considerable amount of greenhouse gases.
If we visualize what the average day looks like for the average person in Amman, we can quickly spot many activities that emit greenhouse gases. Heating water, using cars for transport, and powering different appliances all contribute to emitting greenhouse gases. Of course, it is not practical to cease all our activities in order to lower our emissions, but it does make sense to consider alternatives that would allow us to perform these activities more sustainably.
There are many ways to reduce emissions without making lifestyle sacrifices. For example, it is possible to install solar panels to both power your appliances and heat your water. Instead of using a single occupancy vehicle to go to work, car-pool, or use public transport. You can also combine your errands instead of taking different trips to accomplish whatever you need. More classic advice may include turning off your lights and using energy-saving appliances. Even the manner in which we dispose of our waste can be improved. Limiting the amount of waste you produce, and separating recyclable waste items from non-recyclables can have a significant effect on the emissions we create.
An often overlooked source of emissions comes from the importing of foreign goods. Shopping for local products conserves a significant amount of emissions resulting from transport (and also helps the local economy). Admittedly, some of these changes require an initial investment, but others just require a bit more diligence and common-sense. Either way, significant savings can be realized.
In Jordan, 96% of our energy is imported, meaning that our energy security is continuously at risk, and also that our energy prices are relatively expensive to the user. 47% of our energy consumption is used in the transportation sector. These numbers alone should incentivize a conscientious effort to mitigate our energy consumption. The lack of energy resources should also stimulate the government to make more of an effort to implement various projects that aim to conserve our energy expenditure, especially within the transportation sector. There is a lot of room for improvement in the Jordanian transportation sector, and this makes it easy to achieve significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions by simply shifting to more sustainable methods of mobility such as public transport. We at CSBE have noted in a previous study that public transportation is not a priority in Jordan. A paradigm shift is required when it comes to the way we approach public transportation. An investment in public transport is an investment in people, the economy, and the environment, and should definitely be prioritized as part of the fight against climate change.
The goal of this article is to increase awareness on climate change and the roles of individuals and governments in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the country grows, it becomes more crucial for its people and its government to play an active role in reducing our emissions. This will help us save money, and also avoid many of the problems associated with environmental degradation.
* This article has been produced in association with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), Amman.