Climate change is the long-term shift of temperatures and weather patterns, leading to things like a warmer planet wracked with more volatile hurricanes, floods and droughts. While climate change can be natural, human-driven climate is one of the most serious emergencies facing humanity today. For decades, researchers have studied how the release of greenhouse gasses like methane and carbon dioxide (C02) impacts the planet. What are the 15 root causes of climate change?
|Developing fossil fuels
|Producing electricity and heat
|Cars and planes
#1. Developing fossil fuels
Burning fossil fuels releases lots of greenhouse gasses, but first, they have to be extracted and developed. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, oil and gas development is a serious root cause of climate change. Drilling, fracking, transporting and refining release emissions every step of the way. Methane is especially concerning since it traps more heat than C02 in the atmosphere. Wells continue to leak methane even when they’re abandoned. In 2018, over 3.2 million oil and gas wells released 281 kilotons of methane in the United States.
#2. Producing electricity and heat
According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, oil, coal and natural gas have been fueling the world for over 150 years. Fossil fuels supply around 80% of the world’s energy. In the United States alone, coal supplied 19% of energy in 2020, while oil and natural gas each made up around ⅓ of energy consumption. While alternative energy sources, like solar and wind power, have been expanding, the world is still too dependent on fossil fuels for our electricity and heat.
#3. Cars and planes
In 2010, transportation made up around 15% of global greenhouse emissions. That includes fossil fuels burned for air travel, cars, ships, trains and trucks. C02 is the most prevalent gas thanks to the use of gasoline and diesel fuel. In the United States, most greenhouse gasses from transportation come from passenger cars and trucks. Planes pollute a lot, too, while private planes symbolize why the behavior of the wealthy matters to the climate. According to one study, a person who flies on a private plane emits 10-20 times as much carbon pollution as someone on a commercial flight.
Buildings use a lot of energy. They need to be heated, cooled and lit, while any machines in the building need power, too. The construction of buildings, which requires materials like concrete, steel and cement, also releases a lot of C02 and other greenhouse gasses. In 2021, investments in energy-efficient construction increased by 16%, but a new report found that the building and construction sector was still releasing too many C02 emissions. That year, building and construction emissions accounted for a troubling 37% of energy and process-related emissions.
#5. Road construction
Roads connect the world, but they’re a big contributor to climate change. In the United States, pavement covers almost 2.8 million lane-miles. In one study from MIT, the construction materials needed for all this pavement generate between 11.9-13.3 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Road expansion not only releases gasses through material production and the destruction of natural habitats, but roads also encourage the use of more cars and trucks. While roads are a way of life now, we need to think of better ways to produce and use materials.
Plastic is one of the single-most destructive materials contributing to climate change. First of all, plastic is made from fossil fuels. In fact, around 99% of plastic comes from chemicals made from fossil fuels. Once plastic is used, it’s rarely recycled (the World Bank estimates that just 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled) while the rest gets thrown into landfills, forests, the oceans and other natural environments. Plastic then releases greenhouse gasses into the air and water, contributing to pollution and climate change.
In layman’s terms, “industry” refers to the manufacturing of materials like cement, steel, iron, electronics, clothes and basically every other product. The machines that make products release a lot of greenhouse gasses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industry is responsible for around 24% of global greenhouse emissions. That includes the burning of fossil fuels for energy at facilities, as well as emissions from chemical, metallurgical and mineral transformation systems. As the world’s population grows, industry grows, too, so it’s vital to reduce the amount of emissions generated by this sector.
#8. Fluorinated gasses
C02 and methane are the most commonly discussed contributors to climate change, but there are others to be concerned about: fluorinated gasses. Also known as F-gasses, these are human-made gasses used in certain products and industrial applications. According to the European Commission, you can find these types of gasses in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, the electronic industry, the pharmaceutical industry and during the production of aluminum. While they don’t damage the atmospheric ozone layer and account for just 3% of greenhouse gas emissions, they’re 23,000 times stronger than C02.
#9. Livestock farming
The production of meat, eggs and dairy have a big impact on the climate. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which is one of the many organizations that try to track the causes of climate change, recently estimated that livestock is responsible for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is the big reason why. All livestock emit methane because of their unique digestive systems, while their manure releases the gas, as well. Atmospheric and soil methane sinks, like upland soil and forests, as well as better grazing management, can help offset the impacts of livestock farming.
#10. Food production
According to one study, plant-based food is responsible for around 29% of the 17 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses released from global food production. That includes farmland activities, land-use changes, transportation, product processing and fertilizers and pesticides. The farming of rice is the highest plant-based offender, followed by wheat, sugarcane and maize. Food waste causes problems, too. According to the World Wildlife Fund, we could reduce around 6-8% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions if we stopped food waste. By eating what is produced, we aren’t releasing greenhouse emissions for no reason.
Fertilizers have played an important role in feeding the world’s growing population. According to Carbon Brief, nitrogen fertilizers have helped food production expand, but there’s a downside. Producing synthetic fertilizers causes around 1.4% of yearly C02 emissions, while the use of fertilizers contributes to non-C02 emissions, as well. Simply stopping production is a challenge considering around 48% of the global population eats food grown with synthetic fertilizers. Using natural fertilizers, limiting the negative impacts of nitrogen fertilizer and developing sustainable alternatives can help reduce the world’s reliance on synthetic fertilizers.
Landfills, which are also called dumps, are sites where people dispose of waste. They’re supposed to mitigate the effects of waste on the environment and humans, but they contribute to climate change. The biggest issue is how many greenhouse gasses they release. According to the Environmental Center at the University of Boulder, landfills release a significant amount of methane, C02, water vapor and other gasses. The use of land for landfills is also an issue; in the US, there are as many as 3,000 active landfills, which equals almost 2 million acres of habitat. Too many landfills harm everyone, but they’re especially damaging to people and animals living nearby.
Deforestation is the intentional clearing or thinning of the world’s trees. The largest forests, which are tropical, are found in South America, Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Forests are cleared for a variety of agricultural purposes and other human activities, but deforestation plays a huge role in climate change. Why? Forests store carbon. When they’re cut down, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, C02 from tropical deforestation makes up less than 10% of global warming pollution. Reducing deforestation and protecting forests would go a long way in slowing the effects of climate change.
Overconsumption drives climate change. The more plastic packaging we produce, the more food we waste, the more cars we build – it all has an impact. While individual behavior matters, we’re not all equally responsible for the impacts of climate change. According to a PLOS Climate study, America’s wealthiest people cause almost half of the greenhouse gas warming in the US. This isn’t just because of their lifestyles; they’re also investing in companies that produce fossil fuels. Overconsumption isn’t just about how much stuff we buy. It’s also tied to the pursuit of excess wealth at the expense of other human beings and the environment.
#15. Natural causes
Not all climate change can be blamed on human activities. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, natural causes like volcanic eruptions, solar radiation and tectonic shifts can impact the warmth of the planet. However, super volcanoes, which release the most C02 emissions, only erupt every 100,000-200,000 years. NASA estimates that the human impact on the carbon cycle is 100 times greater than the impact of all the world’s volcanoes combined. Natural climate change causes would not lead us to the climate crisis we’re in today.