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Understanding the Climate Crisis

The Earth receives a huge amount of heat energy from the sun every day. The reason all that heat energy does not just bounce back into space is that the atmosphere traps some of it. Without the atmosphere the Earth would be more like the surface of the moon: freezing cold at night and boiling during the day with an average temperature of around minus 20 Centigrade.

It is the balance between the heat coming from the sun and the amount that escapes back into space that determines the average temperature on Earth.

Some of the heat is trapped in our atmosphere by gases known as ‘Greenhouse Gases’ such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), and Nitrous Oxide (N2O). These greenhouse gases occur naturally, and the more of them there are in the atmosphere, the more of the Sun’s heat is trapped and the warmer the average temperature is on earth.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is commonly measured in parts per million (ppm).  The main problem is that human activity, primarily involving the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, is releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the air - enough to change the concentration of CO2 in the entire atmosphere.

Since around 1750 and the beginning of the industrial revolution, human activity has raised the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by around 50% from 280ppm (parts per million)  to 415ppm. This has in turn started to raise the average temperature on Earth - in fact, the 20 hottest years on record have been in the last 23 years. 

On top of this, the additional CO2 which we emit today will remain in the atmosphere for up to another 100 years. Think of it like running a bath. There is a finite amount that can fit in the bathtub before the water overflows, and the water can only drain slowly through the plughole. So even if we turn the tap down, the water level will still rise and add to what is already in the bath. We still risk flooding the bathroom, just a little slower than before. What we need to do is turn off the tap completely and get a bigger plughole, and all before we overflow the bath – at 2 degrees of warming. 

But why are we worried about overflowing the bathtub?

It matters because as the climate warms it will do enormous harm to humans and damage to our biosphere. Unfortunately, this is already happening: climate change is already a crisis for millions of people on our planet, with worsening droughts, fires, famines, catastrophic and more frequent storms and floods. These are all a product of a warming planet, and with more emissions of CO2 and an ever-rising average temperature, they are only going to get worse.

Within our lifetimes global agriculture will be disrupted, mass migration will increase, and parts of the planet will become uninhabitable. Ecosystems on which humans depend will be damaged – and having taken thousands of years to develop, many will be unable to adapt in time.

Some of these events cannot be avoided, but we can avoid the worst scenarios by acting now. We can save millions of lives and protect our ecosystems by stopping greenhouse gas emissions and by protecting and expanding the natural processes that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – by turning off the tap of emissions and widening the plughole of natural CO2 absorption.

There are vast areas of the planet that already absorb CO2. These are referred to as “Carbon Sinks”. Most of these carbon sinks are familiar, such as forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Others are less well known, like marine phytoplankton, sea-grasses, kelp, and mangroves. The main mechanism is photosynthesis, where plants absorb CO2 and convert it to oxygen. By protecting and expanding these carbon sinks we can draw CO2 down from the atmosphere at the necessary scale.

But we must also stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, and to do that we have to change the ways in which we produce and consume energy. 

This will happen through a combination of government policy, clean energy, and disruptive innovation.

Some of these changes are already underway but they are not happening fast enough. What we need is disruptive innovation, when existing systems are undermined and eventually abandoned because of easier and often cheaper ways of doing things. The changes can be very rapid, as with the invention of motor cars or the adoption of mobile phones. Renewable energy is another disruptive innovation and is already in many cases the cheapest and best form of available energy. 

The changes listed above are market driven. However, there are many areas where market forces do not operate, such as providing renewables to the poorest billion people on the planet, supporting innovation in sustainable energy, laws and policies to prevent greenhouse gas emissions, and finally, what we are doing at the Global Returns Project: changing the way the financial services industry supports climate funding. These are the areas where innovation can disrupt existing systems and cause rapid large-scale changes to tackle the Climate Crisis.

The Global Returns Project has started to make these changes happen. We are funding organisations that are working on problems with no market solutions. The returns on these grants are externalised and global but are real and identifiable. Savers and people with investments are making this happen by becoming Reinvestors, committing to allocate a quarter of one percent of their savings to climate solutions every year.