The burning truth about climate change

The burning truth about climate change is being obfuscated for a number of reasons, some of it is the age-old disagreement between scientists and some of it is driven by those with other agendas, economic or political. Lots is said about giving up meat, not flying, driving less, etc but do the facts give us any clues to the truth about climate change? First off, what are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions? 

Table of Contents

What are the biggest contributors to climate change?

According to the Met Office, the biggest contributors to climate change are burning fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture and construction (cement production). They are all contributors because of the emissions they produce. 

What are emissions?  Emissions add to the natural greenhouse gases that surround the earth’s atmosphere and keep the planet warm. This effect is called the greenhouse effect. Without the natural greenhouse gases, we could not live on the planet. 

The trouble is that man made greenhouse gases are contributing to an unnatural imbalance in radiative forcing. Radiative forcing is the measurement of solar radiation entering the atmosphere and infrared radiation leaving it. 

Climate change is happening because greenhouse gases are accumulating and more infrared radiation is being trapped by them, rather than dispersing. The infrared radiation is being bounced back by the greenhouse gases and this is heating the planet up too much. 

Examples of emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and fluorinated gases or F-gases, namely hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride (United States Environmental Protection Agency). 

Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. It causes approximately 66% of the radiative forcing whereas methane causes approximately 16%. 

So what causes carbon dioxide emissions? Of the 36.3 billion tonnes of global CO2 emissions, 92.3% are caused by burning fossil fuels: 42.1% from coal, 20.7% from natural gas and 29.5% from oil. 

Which countries use the most coal?

Coal is predominantly burned to produce electricity. The country with the highest predicted use in 2022 is China at 4.3 trillion million cubic feet (World Population Review). Coal is mostly used for electricity, 56% of total energy consumption (National Bureau of Statistics of China). 

India is the second highest consumer of coal, estimated at 966 billion MMcf in 2022, accounting for 55% of the country’s fuel needs. The US used 546 million short tons of coal in 2021, and 91.9% was used for electricity. In 2022 that’s estimated to reach 731.1 billion MMcf. 

Which countries use the most natural gas?

30.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was used by the United States in 2021. The US uses natural gas for electrical power and heating in industrial, residential and commercial applications. Use as a car fuel is only 3% of this total at 1.05 Tcf. 

Russia is the next highest user of natural gas at 15.5 billion MMcf. Around 50% of this is used for electricity and heating (Oxford Energy). 

China is the third highest consumer of natural gas at 6.7 billion MMcf only just beating Iran at 6.5. They use it for industrial, commercial and residential heating (64% approx.) and electricity production (22% approx.) China is in the middle of a program to convert coal heating to natural gas heating (Columbia University in the city of New York). 

Which countries use the most oil?

The United States uses 20.3% of the world’s oil. They are estimated by Nasdaq to use 20.51 million barrels a day in 2022. 67.2% of oil is used for transportation, 26.9% for industrial use and only half a percent for electric power. 

China is the second biggest user of oil at an estimated 15.56 million b/d in 2022. Although China leads the world with electric cars and buses, it still needs to keep over 350 million conventional fuel cars on the road. It also uses oil for manufacturing. 

India is the third largest consumer of oil globally at 4.65 million barrels a day. This consumption is likely driven by the increase in car ownership. Together with Russia and Japan, 48% of world oil consumption is used by these 5 countries.  

What causes most methane emissions?

A quick look at methane. The largest source of methane is a natural source – wetlands (IEA). The anthropogenic sources of methane are topped by agriculture at 145 metric tons, then closely followed by fossil fuels (gas, coal, oil and bioenergy) with a combined 134 metric tons. 

64% of non-CO2 emissions in agriculture are from livestock. The balance is from synthetic fertilizers, rice cultivation, burning savannah, crop residues and soils (FAO, 2018). So around 10.4% of emissions are from livestock and 6.5% is from cattle. 

How much does deforestation contribute to carbon emissions?

Deforestation emits around 10% of carbon emissions (London School of Economics). Tropical forests which were once carbon sinks are now net carbon sources due to deforestation. If you add forest degradation and tropical peatlands the contribution to carbon emissions rises to 15%. 

Methane emissions and deforestation are not to be ignored, but with their combined 31% versus the 66% of emissions caused by fossil fuels, it seems the focus should be on fossil fuel emissions. So what can we do about climate change as individuals?

What can we do about climate change?

It seems clear that the biggest driver of climate change is emissions and the biggest emissions are caused by fossil fuel burning. If anything, this should be the focus for individuals, companies and governments if we are to reduce greenhouse gases. 

Here are seven suggestions for things we, as individuals, can do about climate change:

  • Choose renewable energy. Ideally, this should be clean energy and not just renewable energy. Nuclear energy is going to leave a legacy of waste for our children to clean up. 
  • Solar power, hydroelectricity and wind power are much cleaner ways to generate electricity. Choose a green energy supplier for your home. 
  • Lobby your national or local government to replace fossil fuel electricity generation with renewables. 
  • If you can, install a clean electricity supply in your home, like solar power. Think about ground source heat pumps that can replace HVAC which uses a lot of electricity.
  • Support clean energy projects. There are lots of ways to do this. Sign a petition. Help with fundraising. Choose a bank or investment firm that supports clean energy projects or lends to them. 
  • Buy or lease an electric car or a hybrid (if you can afford one). Install an electric car charger that generates excess electricity that can be sold back to the grid. Choose a supplier for your charger who uses clean renewable electricity.
  • If you can’t afford to buy or lease an electric vehicle, use your car less. Use public transport, share car trips, walk or cycle or e-bike. More tips for making your car more efficient and reducing fuel use are in our sustainable living guide. 

Climate change facts

The burning truth about climate change is it is mostly caused by use of fossil fuels for electricity, heating and to a lesser degree transport. This should be the focus of efforts to reduce our emissions quickly. 

Choosing clean energy sources and suppliers would put pressure on companies and governments to provide better, cleaner options for energy. Supporting projects and using your money wisely will also exert pressure. Direct pressure through lobbying and petitioning can help too. 

Reducing gas and oil in transport will also help. An electric car may not be within your budget but there are other ways to reduce your transport emissions. Everyone is different and will choose different options.