The scorching weather this spring may have been enjoyable for those who were not working during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK. But are the frequent 30+°C heatwaves the beginning of irreversible climate change?
Earlier in late June, parts of the UK experienced temperatures nearing 35°C, making them hotter than Ibiza or the Bahamas. This stunning weather was enjoyed by millions who flocked to beaches and parks to sunbathe, had barbecues or used it as an opportunity to just get out of their houses. The heatwave could not have had better timing as the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown began to ease but foreign travel is still highly restricted, meaning Brits could enjoy Mediterranean weather only in their back gardens.
Heatwaves like this appear to be occurring more often in the UK spring and summer months compared to previous records. This is concerning for the future of the planet and future generations. Now is the time to stop the rising temperatures before it’s too late, but how?
You’ve probably seen graphs depicting climate change with the temperature line increasing over the 1970s, 80s and 90s, showing the average temperature nearing the +1°C mark, but we are there now.
1°C may seem insignificant, however, this is a global mean, meaning places around the world have warmed by much more the 1°C since the 1990s, while some are cooler than 1°C.
How is the Earth warming?
This global warming, presented as drier and hotter summers with milder and wetter winters, is mostly being caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One-quarter of man-made GHG emissions come from burning fossil fuels for heat and electricity production. Another quarter is from agriculture, forestry and other land use. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced by these processes. Clearing the forests to raise livestock and grow crops has resulted in less CO2 being absorbed by trees and removed from the atmosphere. The build-up of CO2 in our atmosphere is trapping heat, causing the Earth to warm up.
What is the impact?
Climate change has many impacts on the climate system itself. Sea levels are rising as glaciers and ice sheets melt. The ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs CO2, which causes problems such as coral bleaching. Furthermore, extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves become more frequent.
This takes us back to the point of this article: are heatwaves becoming more common? Hopefully, you can see the answer to this question is yes, they are becoming more common, and heatwaves come with their own set of impacts. Heatwaves can cause heat stress in humans and reduced yields in crops. Animals, including pests, may migrate further north as the areas further from the equator warm. This has been shown to increase the incidences of diseases—for example, malaria—in the UK and Europe.
How can we help?
It’s all well and good telling you about the impending doom of climate change, but what can you do to slow the release of GHG emissions and reduce the warming of the planet?
As a household, you could start by reducing food waste and plastic use, or get a smart meter to easily track your energy usage. Using public transport, riding your bike and decreasing air travel will all cut CO2 emissions as well.
The Met Office reported that in June 2019, the UK became the world’s first major economy to pass a law committing us to a target of ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. The UK government have also spent over £3 billion between 2015 and 2021 to support low carbon innovations. By 2030, a third of the UK’s electricity is hoped to be powered by offshore wind farms. These are great first steps to ensure a brighter future for our planet but we cannot get complacent.