Global warming is the rapid increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature over the past century primarily due to greenhouse gases (GHGs). It occurs when GHGs collect in the atmosphere and absorb sunlight and solar radiation that have bounced off the Earth’s surface. Normally, this radiation would escape into space, but these GHGs trap the heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet, which is necessary to keep the earth livable. The problem is that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, have amplified the planet's natural greenhouse effect and caused global warming. Since 1850, almost all the long-term warming can be explained by GHGs and other human activities.
Carbon dioxide accounts for the largest percentage of greenhouse gases (76%), followed by methane (16%), and nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases (8%). The carbon cycle has both emissions sources and carbon sinks, and their difference is the atmospheric growth (see the figure below for the 2011-2020 average).
There is a strong correlation between rising temperatures and an increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. All 20 years since 2001 rank among the warmest years since measurements began (1880), with 2020 tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. The effects of global warming include extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes.
- Storms, droughts and heatwaves have increased by more than a third this decade and are being recorded twice as frequently as in 1980.
- Climate change raised the chances of Australia’s extreme fire season in 2019/2020 by at least 30%.
While these types of events may pose only temporary disruptions, global warming is also causing geographical changes that pose a permanent threat to our planet.
- 390 billion tons of snow and ice melt each year and the world's seas have risen about an inch in the past 50 years due to glacier melt alone.
- Productivity of rice, the staple food for one-third of the world’s population, declines 10% with every 1 degree Celsius increase in the global temperature.
- One million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction according to a report by the United Nations which cites climate change as one of the causes.
According to the International Energy Agency, while annual global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for 2020 fell by 6% due to lockdowns and a slowdown in the global economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was the largest annual decline since World War II, by December 2020, CO2 emissions had risen to a level 2% higher than the same month in 2019.
According to the UNEP Gap Report published last year, in order to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius as set out in the Paris Agreement, global emissions must drop rapidly to 25 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e) by 2030; however, based on current climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, emissions are on track to be 52 Gt CO2e in 2030, over twice what they should be. The full report can be found here and a summary of the report can be found here.
A carbon footprint is the total GHG emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization or an event. It is calculating by summing the GHG emissions over the life of a product or a service – from manufacturing to delivery to use or consumption. The global warming potential of each GHG (its ability to trap heat) is expressed in units of carbon dioxide equivalents – CO2e. A typical U.S. household has a carbon footprint of 48t CO2e per year. You can calculate your carbon footprint at carbonfootprint.com.