Teme Valley Musings, September 2019

by Stephanie Mocroft

At Easter the potential risks of global warming were brought into sharp focus when climate change protesters took to the streets to raise their concerns. They called for less carbon dioxide to be emitted into the earth’s atmosphere and for Britain to lead the way in bringing about world-wide change. The Government passed legislation to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

From a geological point of view, global climate change is nothing new. Our species, Homo sapiens,has endured and survived many climatic upheavals, of which the last, the last Ice Age, was only 10,000 years ago. Looking back much further into our planet’s history,long before man walked the earth, there was a time when the atmosphere contained plenty of carbon dioxide, but no oxygen. Life on earth began about 4 billion years ago and the development of photosynthesis,by cyanobacteria about half a billion years later, brought the first oxygen molecules into the atmosphere. Plants then came along and used the process of photosynthesis to harness the sun’s energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars, which they used,and oxygen, which they released into the air. Only then could evolution exploit oxygen to create oxygen-breathing creatures.

During the Carboniferous Period oxygen levels are thought to have been much higher than today and huge amounts of plant material were laid down and compressed to form oil, gas, coal and peat. These energy stores, when burned in the presence of oxygen, release those carbon dioxide and water molecules back into the atmosphere,whilst emitting the stored energy of the sun.The carbon dioxide from these burnt fuels has increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels which, in turn,havec aused heat to be retained and warmed the planet.

To replace all energy sources with non-carbon alternatives will be a huge undertaking. The UK is doing well at the moment, successfully using wind and solar power to replace coal and gas in our electricity generation. We now have little heavy industry,so our power requirement, and hence our emissions,have fallen.But to meet our goals all of our energy needs will need to be renewable or nuclear, and all countries, including those to whom we have out-sourced our manufacturing, will need to do the same.All transport will need to use electricity and as there are currently no alternative power sources for aeroplanes, ships or lorries, massive innovation will be needed by 2050. Warming our homes will need to rely on electricity too. There’s lots to do.

Man has ingenuity and, if determined,can develop new technology.But in the meantime is there anything we, as individuals,can do to lessen the effects of burning fossil fuel? Yes. We can buy less, use less, drive less, travel less, eat less meat,fly not at all, recycle more, switch off more, “grow-your-own” more, eat more locally-produced food,and wear more jumpers in winter to turn the thermostat down.Oh, and plant a tree.No-one says it will be easy, but every little helps!