Climate change is already having a significant effect on our planet, and the importance of taking action is highlighted on Earth Day.
Inaugurated in the United States in 1970, Earth Day is now recognized across the globe as an occasion on which to raise awareness of environmental issues.
Here is how global warming is already affecting the UK and the wider world, and what is being done to prevent things getting worse.
How are heatwaves affecting the UK?
In March, the Met Office changed the definition of a heatwave to reflect how climate change is already affecting the UK.
The Met Office defines a heatwave as at least three consecutive days of temperatures above a certain level. The threshold is different for each county, depending on where they are in the country.
Previously the Met Office thresholds were set using average temperature data for mid-July from 1981-2010, but it is now using data from 1991-2020.
This has led to the temperature threshold rising by 1ºC in eight counties.
Professor Hannah Cloke, a natural hazards researcher at the University of Reading, said: “With average temperatures rising across the UK, we have to shift the definition of what ‘particularly hot’ is, otherwise that definition becomes increasingly meaningless.”
Heatwaves are 30 times more likely to occur now than in 1750 due to greenhouse gas emissions, the Met Office said.
Dr Mark McCarthy, head of the Met Office National Climate Information Centre, said: “Temperature rises have been greatest across parts of central and eastern England, where they have increased by more than 1°C in some locations, while further north, areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen temperatures rise by closer to 0.7°C.”
The threshold for a heatwave is 25ºC for most of the country.
East Riding of Yorkshire has a threshold of 26ºC and it is 27ºC in Lincolnshire.
London, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire have a threshold of 28ºC.
A 1ºC increase may not seem like a lot, but can have a huge effect on both the planet and human life.
Summer droughts will become more common, and the UK’s infrastructure is not built to deal with consistently hot weather.
Professor Nigel Arnell of the University of Reading said: “What we previously thought of as an unusually hot summer will soon become common.
“We have to make sure that our homes, offices and infrastructure can cope now with the anticipated higher temperatures so that we can reduce the ill-health and disruption that heatwaves produce.”
How is climate change affecting the planet?
Climate change is already having a significant effect on the planet.
The Earth’s average temperature has increased by more than 1ºC during the 20th and 21st century, which is a far bigger deal than it sounds.
Nasa explains: “Two degrees [Farenheit] may sound like a small amount, but it’s an unusual event in our planet’s recent history.
“Earth’s climate record, preserved in tree rings, ice cores, and coral reefs, shows that the global average temperature is stable over long periods of time. Furthermore, small changes in temperature correspond to enormous changes in the environment.
“For example, at the end of the last ice age, when the north-east United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only five to nine degrees cooler than today.”
Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner.
The Met Office lists the following impacts of climate change:
- Risk to water supplies
- Conflict and climate migrants
- localized flooding
- Flooding of coastal regions
- Damage to marine ecosystems
- Fisheries failing
- loss of biodiversity
- Change in seasonality
- heat stress
- Habitable region of pests expands
- Forest mortality and increased risk of fires
- Damage to infrastructure
- food insecurity
The assessment released in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed the most immediate and significant threats to humanity caused by climate change.
It said rising temperatures and increasingly severe heatwaves, droughts and floods are already creating a world where plants and animal species, such as coral reefs, are struggling to survive.
“The rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt,” the panel said.
Unless climate change is abated one of the most serious threats to society will be disruption to supplies of food and water.
Rising temperatures are causing ice caps and glaciers to melt and changing snowfall patterns in mountainous regions, disrupting supplies of fresh water for billions.
Extreme weather such as droughts and heatwaves can also be devastating for crops.
“These interacting impacts will increase food prices, reduce household incomes, and lead to health risks of malnutrition and climate-related mortality with no or low levels of adaptation, especially in tropical regions,” the panel said.
What progress is being made?
Under the Paris Agreement, the world has pledged to keep global warming below 1.5ºC, and there is also a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The world is currently behind schedule, and overshooting this 1.5ºC mark could by very risky, but progress is being made.
Global greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, but not as fast as they once were, thanks largely to green technologies such as solar power and electric vehicles.
The cost of using solar and wind power has fallen by 85 per cent since 2010.
Scientists say reaching net zero by 2050 is still possible, but will require rapid and immediate action across every sector of the global economy.
This will include transforming electricity grids to run mainly on renewable power, and a significant switch to renewable and recyclable materials in heavy industry.
Electric vehicles must take over from fuel and the fossil fuel industry must be dramatically scaled back.
Moving away from meat to plant-based diets will be important, as will planting more trees to absorb carbon dioxide.
Dr Steve Smith, from the University of Oxford, said: “This is the first IPCC report to state clearly that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is needed to achieve our climate targets.
“The report shows there are many ways to remove carbon – from tree planting and soil restoration to capturing and storing COtwo from bioenergy facilities, and even direct air capture machines – just like there are many ways to cut emissions.”