2021, was the fifth warmest year ever, where Europe witnessed some of the continent’s most extreme weather, from record-breaking snowfall in Madrid to historic wildfires in Greece, and many countries were battered by floods, storms, fires, and other climate anomalies.

In 2021, the annual average temperature was 0.3 degrees celsius (°C) higher than the 1991-2020 average and 1.1-1.2°C over the average for the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900. The last seven years were also the seven warmest on record, according to data from the programme’s ERA5, which has been recording climate trends since 1950. The highest average annual temperature was recorded in 2016. 

This global warming phenomenon in 2021 triggered extreme weather events across the world: Europe’s deadliest flood since 1985 struck western Germany and eastern Belgium July 12-18, when a stalled low-pressure system dumped torrential rains that killed 240 people and caused 37 billion in damage, according to Aon. The flood ranks as the costliest weather disaster in European history. In the USA, extreme weather events last year such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, and cold waves had cost 688 lives and $145 billion according to NOAA’s annual report.

In Europe, between 1980 and 2020, extreme weather and climate change events cost Europe up to €520 billion in economic losses, according to a report by the EEA. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report considers extreme weather as the top risk by severity in the next 10 years.

Source: The top 10 global weather and climate change events of 2021

Although not every extreme weather event is caused by or linked to climate change, scientists have become bolder in exploring the connections: One leading researcher, Dr. Friederike Otto, tweeted earlier this year that every heatwave happening in the world now is “made more likely and more intense” by human-induced climate change. In relation to storms and hurricanes, there is growing evidence that climate change is also affecting these events.

As such, these events are a stark reminder of the need to change our ways, take decisive and effective steps toward a sustainable society and work towards reducing net carbon emissions.

BUT WHAT ARE CARBON EMISSIONS AND WHAT CAUSES THEM?

If you don’t remember the greenhouse effect from school, it’s the natural process of how the sun warms the Earth’s surface. When greenhouse gases release into the atmosphere — these include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and water vapor — and trap the sun’s heat, they warm the average global temperature, causing it to rise. This is known as global warming.

What should happen is that infrared radiation escapes into space, but instead, it gets trapped in our atmosphere and warms the planet.

Carbon emissions are one type of greenhouse gas emission that happens when carbon dioxide enters the air after a human activity or process. What causes carbon emissions are humans. Carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere after everyday human processes like driving a vehicle, the agricultural industry, and more. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the six main sources of greenhouse gases as transportation, electricity production, industry, commercial and residential, agriculture, and land use and forestry. 

Carbon emissions affect the planet significantly, as they are the greenhouse gas with the highest levels of emissions in the atmosphere. This, of course, causes global warming and ultimately, climate change.

Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels — coal, natural gas, and oil — are burned. But burning other biological materials also releases carbon dioxide: solid waste, trees, etc. Anytime that carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere in large quantities — especially if it’s staying in the atmosphere for thousands of years — it is affecting the planet.

How do carbon emissions affect the planet? For starters, NASA says that rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will both hurt and help crops. While increased carbon dioxide levels can “increase water-use efficiency in crops” and also “mitigate yield losses due to climate change,” these levels can also create imbalances in nitrogen and carbon, minimizing crops’ necessary nutrients like iron, zinc, and protein.

The most important way that carbon emissions affect the planet is by causing climate change. As the average global temperature warms, our climate inherently changes — it warms. This warming causes extreme weather events. And while an increase in carbon in the air can, in some ways, positively affect plants and crops, if the climate changes the lands and causes drought or other weather events that crops and plants are unable to survive in, it can be detrimental to crop yields. The same problem holds for animals, as well; as climate change alters our environment and natural habitats, different indigenous species take a hit. Some species may disappear altogether, while others might thrive and overtake others.

Carbon emissions directly affect humans, too, causing more respiratory disease from an increase of smog and air pollution. Not to mention that if carbon emissions eradicate certain animal species, destroy crop yields and lands, humans will also see the repercussions of those effects as well.

WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS WE HAVE TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE?

There’s no magic bullet, yet nearly all of these solutions exist today, and many of them hinge on humans changing the way we behave, shifting the way we make and consume energy. The required changes span technologies, behaviors, and policies that encourage less waste and smarter use of our resources. For example, improvements to energy efficiency and vehicle fuel economy, increases in wind and solar power, biofuels from organic waste, setting a price on carbon, and protecting forests are all potent ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other gases trapping heat on the planet.

Scientists are also working on ways to sustainably produce hydrogen, most of which is currently derived from natural gas, to feed zero-emission fuel cells for transportation and electricity. Other efforts are aimed at building better batteries to store renewable energy; engineering a smarter electric grid; and capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and other sources with the goal of storing it underground or turning it into valuable products such as gasoline. Some people argue that nuclear power—despite concerns over safety, water use, and toxic waste—should also be part of the solution because nuclear plants don’t contribute any direct air pollution while operating.

Read more about how to address climate change here


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