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10 Causes of Global Warming

In 1988, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to assess climate change and provide policymakers with updates. In 2022, the IPCC released its sixth assessment report examining the impacts of global warming on ecosystems, biodiversity, and humans. The findings were grim. It found that climate change will increase all over the world. Even with 1.5°C, heat waves, longer warm seasons, shorter cold seasons, and extreme weather events will increase. The report also found that we can still turn things around by cutting emissions to net-zero. How? What’s causing global warming? It’s the burning of fossil fuels. When fossil fuels burn, they release a series of greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. Global emissions can be categorized into different sectors: electricity and heat production, industry, agriculture, buildings, and transportation. In this article, we’ll dig into these areas in a bit more depth and expose ten main causes of global warming.

#1. Power plants

In a study published in Environmental Research Letters, 5% of the 29,000 power plants surveyed were responsible for 73% of the global electricity generation industry’s C02 emissions. These “hyper-polluting” power plants, as the study calls them, are found in places like East Asia, India, and Europe. Inefficiency is a big reason. Coal plants in particular are a problem. There are around 8,500 coal power plants in operation globally, but they produce ⅕ of total greenhouse gases. This makes them the largest single source. Smithsonian Magazine names a 27-year-old power plant in Poland, which produces 20% of Poland’s electricity using brown coal, an especially “dirty” form of coal. Globally, coal plants generate over ⅓ of all electricity, so we need to turn to other sources quickly.

#2. Agriculture

According to The World Bank, agriculture is a big driver of climate change. It produces between 19-29% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions are likely to rise due to the demand for more food production to feed the world’s growing population. Where are the problems originating from? Methane is a big concern since it is 26 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Methane is released from livestock and rice production. About ⅓ of agriculture’s global methane emissions come from livestock. Rice grown in rice paddies also produces a lot – about 11% of agriculture’s emissions. Nitrous oxide – which is 300 times stronger than CO2 – is also a problem! 60% of human-caused N2O emissions come from agriculture. It’s produced after croplands are fertilized and after crop residues get burned.

#3. Vehicles and transport

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, transportation is responsible for around ⅓ of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Transport includes more than cars. At 9%, airplanes make up the third-largest source of emissions in the United States. Globally, the aviation industry will likely produce around 43 metric gigatons of CO2 through 2050. Globally, ships release almost 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. With expanding international trade, it’s expected that ship and boat emissions could increase 250% by 2050. To reduce emissions from vehicles and other transport, the world needs solutions like increased technology efficiency, changes in how people travel and move goods, and lower-carbon fuel sources.

#4. Landfills

Landfills present serious risks to the environment and human health. Our old friend methane is a big reason why. As organic waste (like food waste) sits in landfills, the decomposition process releases methane gas. Since 2016, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Scientific Aviation, a leak-detection firm, have performed flyovers over landfills in California. Commissioned by air-quality regulators, the years-long survey revealed that “super-emitters” landfills were responsible for 43% of measured methane emissions. This puts landfills above fossil-fuel and agricultural sectors in the state. Results also showed that the ten biggest culprits were averaging 2.27% over the federal estimates of methane emission. This is just one example of the impact landfills have on global warming. Considering how many landfills there are in the world, they deserve more attention.

#5. Offshore drilling

Offshore drilling is the extraction of petroleum in rock formations beneath the seabed. Companies drill wellbores. Measuring the impact of offshore drilling is extremely important because of how many offshore platforms there are. For a while, offshore drilling was considered efficient with limited methane leakage. However, a study by scientists from Princeton University found that extracting oil and natural gas in the North Sea released a lot more methane than previously estimated. The survey found that on average, methane leakage during normal operations was more than double the reported emissions. Offshore drilling also threatens ocean health and human health with spills and pollution. Burning the fuels extracted through offshore drilling increases greenhouse gas emissions, as well.

#6. Fracking

Fracking is the process of shooting high-pressure liquid into rocks and boreholes deep beneath the ground. This opens fissures for the extraction of oil or gas. There are many risks. If oil or gas wells aren’t sturdy, they can leak into groundwater. The fracking fluids are also toxic. What about fracking’s connection to global warming? Fracking could be responsible for an increase in methane emissions. It’s possible to draw this conclusion thanks to how quickly the atmosphere responds to methane. A 2019 Cornell University report found “chemical fingerprints” linking increased methane to shale oil and gas. These chemical fingerprints also helped the research pinpoint fracking as the cause of methane release and not livestock. This is essential to understand because stopping methane emissions has an immediate effect. It fades away quickly (compared to CO2), so it’s arguably an easy way to combat global warming.

#7. Deforestation

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of forests. They’re home to countless plant and animal species, they produce medicine and food, and they support millions of jobs. They’re also essential in combating global warming. When trees perform photosynthesis, they drink carbon dioxide from the air, store it, and release oxygen. Wood is made almost completely from carbon. When forests are destroyed, all that carbon is released. As of 2021, deforestation is responsible for less than 10% of the global warming pollution. This represents a decrease as people work to save forests, but it’s also because burning fossil fuels has increased, which cuts down on deforestation’s impact. There are many reasons why forests get destroyed, including agriculture, housing, and logging. Tropical deforestation is linked to the production of wood products, beef, soybeans, and palm oil. The loss of forests doesn’t only release greenhouse gases, it also affects biodiversity, soil erosion, and water cycles.

#8. Overfishing

Overfishing is a major issue affecting ocean health. As the fish species become depleted, fleets have begun moving deeper and deeper into the ocean, disrupting the ocean’s systems. Overfishing and global warming have a close relationship. A 2022 article in Frontiers in Marine Science analyzed ocean warming, overfishing, and mercury pollution in European waters. Referencing previous studies, the authors name several connections between overfishing and global warming. Overfishing increases the risk of ocean warming because it affects the resilience of marine species. In turn, ocean warming harms biodiversity. The more fish and marine life there are, the more carbon emissions are stored, which reduces global warming. To protect the oceans and their ability to store carbon, overfishing needs to stop.

#9. Melting permafrost

Permafrost is soil that’s been at or below freezing for at least two years. This frozen ground covers about 9 million square miles of the northern part of the planet. In parts of the Northern Hemisphere, there’s twice as much carbon stored in permafrost than what’s in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, if 10% of the carbon believed to be stored in permafrost was released, it would equal about 1 billion metric tons per year. Permafrost thaw is an insidious cycle. As global warming increases due to greenhouse emissions, permafrost softens and melts. As permafrost melts, ancient stores of methane and carbon dioxide are released and the cycle is set off again. Plant and animal life, humans, and infrastructure are threatened. Permafrost thaw can’t be reversed, so we must reduce emissions and stop the process.

#10. Consumerism

Consumerism simply means buying stuff. What do shopping trips have to do with global warming? In 2015, a study revealed the production and use of household services and goods drove 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Wealthy countries have the biggest impact because they make and buy the most stuff. While each individual purchase doesn’t make a big difference, it adds up quickly when everyone is in denial about consumerism’s impact on global warming. The biggest culprits – big corporations – are also motivated by economic growth and what they know people will buy. As reported in the New Republic, a 2019 report from C40 Cities reads: “Individual consumers cannot change the way the global economy operates on their own, but many of the interventions proposed in this report rely on individual action.” This isn’t to say that individual action is only a matter of motivation. Most people would probably love to change their lifestyles to benefit the planet, but factors like finances and access to climate-friendly products and services play a huge role. People cannot take individual action when there are too many barriers. Consumers alone can’t be blamed for consumerism.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.