We’ve all walked into a closed-up room where the sunlight has been pouring in a window. That stuffy stifling feeling is the green house effect.
The same thing is happening to our planet. The sun pours down on us, but some of the heat bounces off the Earth and the atmosphere releases it. Except greenhouse gases (GHG) trap this heat and keep it on the planet. Parts of the planet work as sinks for the heat– like the oceans and the polar ice caps– which means they warm faster than the land. As a result, the arctic ice is melting faster than the antarctic ice, while both polar caps are warming faster than the rest of the earth.
The number most mentioned in Climate Change science is 2 degrees celsius. If the air temperature of the planet does not rise more than 2C, most of the worst problems can be averted. However, our present pace sets us toward a minimum 4C rise, maybe worse. And we have our foot on the gas pedal. Total emissions continue to grow.*
The most important word is accumulation. Science does not actually know how long carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, if not absorbed naturally. Estimates are several hundred to over a thousand years. Other greenhouse gases– like methane–dissipate faster, but CO2 is by far the majority of the problem. The foliage and nature’s other carbon sequestration capacities are overwhelmed by the amount of carbon dioxide humans are emitting into the atmosphere. The buildup will hang around a long time, which adds to the difficulty of solving Climate Change.
While warming is the technical problem, it is the changes to our climate systems that are the human problem. This is why the term Climate Change is used more frequently now than the original name, Global Warming.
Among the threats are more severe and more frequent storms, droughts (California is presently experiencing the worst drought in the history of the state), shrinking snowpack, altered ecosystems, rising sea levels, more acidic seas, and increases in ozone sourced smog (scientists refer to this as “the climate penalty”), and other extreme weather.
According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, failing to reduce emissions would result in food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.
All these problems create a destabilization to our planet’s weather patterns that is unprecedented.
An unpredictable climate system is making it increasingly difficult and expensive to live on this planet. Poorer nations are being effected more than richer ones, and poor people in all countries have less capacity for adaptation. But we are all being effected, and wealth cannot insulate us from a shift in something as basic as our weather. The predictability and stability of our climate is one of the fundamental tenets of our civilization, as important to humanity’s existence as the development of agriculture, organized religion, the rule of law, and a written language. Altering something as basic as this will result in an inestimable number of changes to most people’s daily lives.
Climate Change is becoming as much of an economic issue as an environmental issue as people begin to weigh the costs of action against the costs of inaction.
Total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 was 22.5 billion metric tons. In 2000, it was 28 billion. In 2010, it was 36.4 billion metric tons. This is an increase in the past 20 years of 61.7%. Chart below is from the Con Edison website.
To put some long-term perspective on this, in 1900 the entire world emitted 2.0 billion metric tons of CO2. In the 90 years that followed, carbon dioxide emissions rose 1,125%. If math is not your thing, a two foot tall toddler that grows to be a man of six feet represents an increase of 300%. When you add the over 60% jump in the past 20 years, the total emissions jump from 1900 to 2010 is a percentage increase of 1,820%. If carbon emission was a toddler in 1900, it would now be a giant 36 and 1/2 feet tall.
In 2012, the United States was responsible for about 16.2% of the world’s GHG. China had the biggest share at 26.5%. The European Union was third with 13.3%, followed by India at 6.4%. Russia was the only other country beyond 5%.
In 1990, the US was responsible for 22% of CO2 global emissions. That amount dropped to 19% in 2000. At this point, China was at 14%, and no other country topped 6%.
While the United States has reduced its share of global emissions by 5.8% in the past 20 years, it has only reduced its total emissions slightly (maybe 1.8%). The main reason we are responsible for almost 6% less of the worlds GHG is that the rest of the world is producing so much more. They are importing our culture and following our example.
- In 2004, total emissions from residential and commercial buildings were 2236 million metric tons of CO2, or 39% of total U.S. CO2 emissions—more than either the transportation or industrial sectors
- Over the next 25 years, CO2 emissions from buildings are projected to grow faster than any other sector, with emissions from commercial buildings projected to grow the fastest—1.8% a year through 2030
- When other CO2 emissions attributable to buildings are considered—such as the emissions from the manufacture and transport of building construction and demolition materials and transportation associated with urban sprawl—the result is an even greater impact on the climate
Buildings consume 70% of the electricity load in the U.S.
Residential housing is responsible for a little less than half (43%) of the built world’s emissions.
Within housing’s contribution, the biggest energy wasters are the homes built before World War II– which constitute almost all of the neighborhoods within the city of Minneapolis, plus the urban core of most other major American cities.
Elegant Problem Solvers
Minnesota is perhaps the most significant place to make these improvements in older homes. This state has one of the most challenging climates on the planet, at least for places with large population. Houses here demand ample amounts of energy, both for heating during the harsh winter months and for cooling during the warm muggy summers. Carbon Zero renovations in Minneapolis set a formidable example to the rest of the country that we have the capacity to solve the Climate Change problem. Achieving Net Zero here sends the message that it can be achieved anywhere in the world.
*In 2013, emissions plateaued for the first time while the global economy grew by 3%. This is hopeful news, demonstrating that we can transition to clean energy economy without stopping growth. Of course, there will be “rearranging” involved, which will reduce growth in some sectors of the economy (coal industry comes to mind) while other sectors increase.
Information on this page is from: US Green Building Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, US Environmental Protection Agency, Wikipedia, Con Edison, Fresh-Energy.org, Rolling Stone magazine, and US Dept. of Energy.