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You are here: Home / Environmental topics / Climate change / FAQ

FAQ

This section provides answers to frequently asked questions about climate change. In each of the three first sections ("The physical science basis on climate change", "Climate change impacts, and adaptations and vulnerabilities" and "Mitigation of climate change"), FAQs 1 to 3 were prepared by the editorial team of www.greenfacts.org. Each answer represents a summary of a detailed text, directly sourced from IPCC "Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)", produced in 2007 by a large international panel of scientists. In addition, FAQs 4 to 22 of the section "The physical science basis on climate change" are directly sourced from the Working Group I report "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis" of IPCC "Fourth Assessment Report (AR4)". All other FAQs were prepared by the EEA.

Sections
  1. No section
  2. The physical science basis on climate change
  3. Climate change impacts, adaptations and vulnerabilities
  4. Mitigation of climate change
  5. EEA activities on the mitigation of climate change in Europe

No section

Climate change in 226 words

Current warming trends are unequivocal. It is very likely that greenhouse gases released by human activities are responsible for most of the warming observed in the past fifty years. The warming is projected to continue and to increase over the course of the 21st century and beyond.

Climate change already has a measurable impact on many natural and human systems. Effects are projected to increase in the future and to be more severe with greater increases in temperature. Adaptation measures are already being implemented, and will be essential in order to address the projected consequences. There is, however, a limit to adaptation; mitigation measures will also be needed in order to reduce the severity of impacts.

Mitigation measures that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can help avoid, reduce or delay many impacts of climate change. Policy instruments could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in products, technologies and processes which emit less greenhouse gases. Without new mitigation policies, global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow over the coming decades and beyond. Rapid world-wide investments and deployment of mitigation technologies, as well as research into new energy sources will be necessary to achieve a stabilization of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Additional research addressing gaps in knowledge would further reduce uncertainties and thus facilitate decision-making related to climate change.

More on climate change at the EEA

More scientific facts on climate change

The physical science basis on climate change

What makes the climate change?

The Earth’s climate is influenced by many factors, mainly by the amount of energy coming from the sun, but also by factors such as the amount of greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere, and the properties of the Earth’s surface, which determine how much of this solar energy is retained or reflected back to space.

The atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have significantly increased since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is mainly due to human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, land use change, and agriculture. For instance, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now far higher than in the last 650 000 years and has been growing faster in the last ten years than it has been since the beginning of continuous measurements around 1960.

It is very likely that, overall, human activities since 1750 have had a global warming effect on the Earth.

More at greenfacts.org

How is climate changing and how has it changed in the past?

What changes have been observed so far in climate? What is causing the present-day changes in climate?

Observed changes in climate

The warming of global climate is now unequivocal. There are many observations of increasing air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising sea levels.

More specifically, eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest years ever recorded since global surface temperatures are measured (1850). Over the last 100 years (1906–2005), global temperature has increased by 0.74°C. Global sea level has risen by 17 cm during the 20th century, in part because of the melting of snow and ice from many mountains and in the polar regions. More regional changes have also been observed, including changes in Arctic temperatures and ice, ocean salinity, wind patterns, droughts, precipitations, frequency of heat waves and intensity of tropical cyclones.

The temperatures of the last half century are unusual in comparison with those of at least the previous 1300 years. The last time that the polar regions remained significantly warmer than now for a very extended period (125 000 years ago), the sea level rose by 4 to 6 meters.

Causes of present-day climate change

Most of the increase in global temperature observed over the past fifty years is very likely due to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

More at greenfacts.org

How is the climate going to change in the future?

What are the projected changes for the 21st century and on the longer term?

Projected changes in temperature for the 21st century

The global average temperature is expected to increase by about 0.2°C per decade over the next two decades. Continuing greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause a further increase in global temperatures and many other climatic changes during the 21st century.

The best estimates for projected global temperature increases from the 1980s to the end of the 21st century range from 1.8°C (1.1 - 2.9°C) to 4°C (2.4 - 6.4°C) for the IPCC scenarios that do not consider additional mitigation measures apart from those already in place in 2000.

Other projected changes for the 21st century

Global average sea level is expected to rise by 18 to 59 cm by the end of the 21st century. Warming is expected to be greatest over land and at high northern latitudes and smallest over the Southern Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic Ocean. Other projected changes include acidification of the oceans, reduced snow cover and sea ice, more frequent heat waves and heavy precipitation, more intense tropical cyclones, and slower oceanic currents.

Projected changes on the longer term

Warming and sea level rise caused by human activities will continue for centuries, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized. If warming persists over many centuries, it could lead to a complete melting of the Greenland Ice sheet, increasing global sea levels by about 7m.

More at greenfacts.org

What factors determine Earth’s climate?

The climate system is a complex, interactive system consisting of the atmosphere, land surface, snow and ice, oceans and other bodies of water, and living things. The atmospheric component of the climate system most obviously characterises climate; climate is often defined as ‘average weather’.

Climate is usually described in terms of the mean and variability of temperature, precipitation and wind over a period of time, ranging from months to millions of years (the classical period is 30 years).

The climate system evolves in time under the influence of its own internal dynamics and due to changes in external factors that affect climate (called ‘forcings’). External forcings include natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations, as well as human-induced changes in atmospheric composition. Solar radiation powers the climate system.

There are three fundamental ways to change the radiation balance of the Earth:

  1. by changing the incoming solar radiation (e.g., by changes in Earth’s orbit or in the Sun itself);
  2. by changing the fraction of solar radiation that is reflected (called ‘albedo’; e.g., by changes in cloud cover, atmospheric particles or vegetation);
  3. by altering the longwave radiation from Earth back towards space (e.g., by changing greenhouse gas concentrations).

Climate, in turn, responds directly to such changes, as well as indirectly, through a variety of feedback mechanisms.

For more information, see FAQ 1.1, extracted from Chapter 1 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York,

What is the relationship between climate change and weather?

Climate is generally defined as average weather, and as such, climate change and weather are intertwined. Observations can show that there have been changes in weather, and it is the statistics of changes in weather over time that identify climate change. While weather and climate are closely related, there are important differences.

A common confusion between weather and climate arises when scientists are asked how they can predict climate 50 years from now when they cannot predict the weather a few weeks from now. The chaotic nature of weather makes it unpredictable beyond a few days. Projecting changes in climate (i.e., long-term average weather) due to changes in atmospheric composition or other factors is a very different and much more manageable issue. As an analogy, while it is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, we can say with high confidence that the average age of death for men in industrialised countries is about 75.

Another common confusion of these issues is thinking that a cold winter or a cooling spot on the globe is evidence against global warming. There are always extremes of hot and cold, although their frequency and intensity change as climate changes. But when weather is averaged over space and time, the fact that the globe is warming emerges clearly from the data.

For more information, see FAQ 1.2, extracted from Chapter 1 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

What is the greenhouse effect?

The Sun powers Earth’s climate, radiating energy at very short wavelengths, predominately in the visible or near-visible (e.g., ultraviolet) part of the spectrum. Roughly one-third of the solar energy that reaches the top of Earth’s atmosphere is reflected directly back to space. The remaining two-thirds is absorbed by the surface and, to a lesser extent, by the atmosphere. To balance the absorbed incoming energy, the Earth must, on average, radiate the same amount of energy back to space. Because the Earth is much colder than the Sun, it radiates at much longer wavelengths, primarily
in the infrared part of the spectrum (see Figure 1). Much of this thermal radiation emitted by the land and ocean is absorbed by the atmosphere, including clouds, and reradiated back to Earth. This is called the greenhouse effect.

The glass walls in a greenhouse reduce airflow and increase the temperature of the air inside. Analogously, but through a different physical process, the Earth’s greenhouse effect warms the surface of the planet. Without the natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature at Earth’s surface would be below the freezing point of water. Thus, Earth’s natural greenhouse effect makes life as we know it possible.

However, human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have greatly intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.

For more information, see FAQ 1.3, extracted from Chapter 1 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY,

How do human activities contribute to climate change and how do they compare with natural influences?

Human activities contribute to climate change by causing changes in Earth’s atmosphere in the amounts of greenhouse gases, aerosols (small particles), and cloudiness. The largest known contribution comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide gas to the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases and aerosols affect climate by altering incoming solar radiation and out-going infrared (thermal) radiation that are part of Earth’s energy balance. Changing the atmospheric abundance or properties of these gases and particles can lead to a warming or cooling of the climate system.

Since the start of the industrial era (about 1750), the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.

For more information, see FAQ 2.1, extracted from Chapter 2 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

How are temperatures on Earth changing?

Instrumental observations over the past 157 years show that temperatures at the surface have risen globally, with important regional variations. For the global average, warming in the last century has occurred in two phases, from the 1910s to the 1940s (0.35°C), and more strongly from the 1970s to the present (0.55°C). An increasing rate of warming has taken place over the last 25 years, and 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 12 years. Above the surface, global observations since the late 1950s show that the troposphere (up to about 10 km) has warmed at a slightly greater rate than the surface, while the stratosphere (about 10–30 km) has cooled markedly since 1979. This is in accord with physical expectations and most model results.

Confirmation of global warming comes from warming of the oceans, rising sea levels, glaciers melting, sea ice retreating in the Arctic and diminished snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere.

For more information, see FAQ 3.1, extracted from Chapter 3 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

How is precipitation changing?

Observations show that changes are occurring in the amount, intensity, frequency and type of precipitation. These aspects of precipitation generally exhibit large natural variability, and El Niño and changes in atmospheric circulation patterns such as the North Atlantic Oscillation have a substantial influence.

Pronounced long-term trends from 1900 to 2005 have been observed in precipitation amount in some places: significantly wetter in eastern North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, but drier in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. More precipitation now falls as rain rather than snow in northern regions. Widespread increases in heavy precipitation events have been observed, even in places where total amounts have decreased.

These changes are associated with increased water vapour in the atmosphere arising from the warming of the world’s oceans, especially at lower latitudes. There are also increases in some regions in the occurrences of both droughts and floods.

For more information, see FAQ 3.2, extracted from Chapter 3 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Has there been a change in extreme events like heat waves, droughts, floods and hurricanes?

Since 1950, the number of heat waves has increased and widespread increases have occurred in the numbers of warm nights.

The extent of regions affected by droughts has also increased as precipitation over land has marginally decreased while evaporation has increased due to warmer conditions.

Generally, numbers of heavy daily precipitation events that lead to flooding have increased, but not everywhere.

Tropical storm and hurricane frequencies vary considerably from year to year, but evidence suggests substantial increases in intensity and duration since the 1970s. In the extratropics, variations in tracks and intensity of storms reflect variations in major features of the atmospheric circulation, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation.

For more information, see FAQ 3.3, extracted from Chapter 3 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Is the amount of snow and ice on the Earth decreasing?

Yes. Observations show a global-scale decline of snow and ice over many years, especially since 1980 and increasing during the past decade, despite growth in some places and little change in others. Most mountain glaciers are getting smaller. Snow cover is retreating earlier in the spring. Sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking in all seasons, most dramatically in
summer. Reductions are reported in permafrost, seasonally frozen ground and river and lake ice. Important coastal regions of the ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica, and the glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula, are thinning and contributing to sea level rise. The total contribution of glacier, ice cap and ice sheet melt to sea level rise is estimated as 1.2 ± 0.4 mm/yr for the period 1993 to 2003.

For more information, see FAQ 4.1, extracted from Chapter 4 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Is sea level rising?

Yes, there is strong evidence that global sea level gradually rose in the 20th century and is currently rising at an increased rate, after a period of little change between AD 0 and AD 1900. Sea level is projected to rise at an even greater rate in this century. The two major causes of global sea level rise are thermal expansion of the oceans (water expands as it warms) and the loss of land-based ice due to increased melting.

For more information, see FAQ 5.1, extracted from Chapter 5 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

What caused the Ice Ages and other important climate changes before the industrial era?

Climate on Earth has changed on all time scales, including long before human activity could have played a role. Great progress has been made in understanding the causes and mechanisms of these climate changes. Changes in Earth’s radiation balance were the principal driver of past climate changes, but the causes of such changes are varied. For each case – be it the Ice Ages, the warmth at the time of the dinosaurs or the fluctuations of the past millennium – the specific causes must be established individually. In many cases, this can now be done with good confidence, and many past climate changes can be reproduced with quantitative models.

For more information, see FAQ 6.1, extracted from Chapter 6 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA

Is the current climate change unusual compared to earlier changes in Earth’s history?

Climate has changed on all time scales throughout Earth’s history. Some aspects of the current climate change are not unusual, but others are. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a record high relative to more than the past half-million years, and has done so at an exceptionally fast rate. Current global temperatures are warmer than they have ever been during at least the past five centuries, probably even for more than a millennium.

If warming continues unabated, the resulting climate change within this century would be extremely unusual in geological terms. Another unusual aspect of recent climate change is its cause: past climate changes were natural in origin (see FAQ 6.1), whereas most of the warming of the past 50 years is attributable to human activities.

For more information, see FAQ 6.2, extracted from Chapter 6 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Are the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the industrial era caused by human activities?

Yes, the increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases during the industrial era are caused by human activities. In fact, the observed increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations does not reveal the full extent of human emissions in that it accounts for only 55% of the CO2 released by human activity since 1959. The rest has been taken up by plants on land and by the oceans. In all cases, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and their increases, are determined by the balance between sources (emissions of the gas from human activities and natural systems) and sinks (the removal of the gas from the atmosphere by conversion to a different chemical compound).

Fossil fuel combustion (plus a smaller contribution from cement manufacture) is responsible for more than 75% of human-caused CO2 emissions. Land use change (primarily deforestation) is responsible for the remainder.
For methane, another important greenhouse gas, emissions generated by human activities exceeded natural emissions over the last 25 years.

For nitrous oxide, emissions generated by human activities are equal to natural emissions to the atmosphere.

Most of the long-lived halogen-containing gases (such as chloro-fluorcarbons) are manufactured by humans, and were not present in the atmosphere before the industrial era.

On average, present-day tropospheric ozone has increased 38% since pre-industrial times, and the increase results from atmospheric reactions of short-lived pollutants emitted by human activity.

The concentration of CO2 is now 379 parts per million (ppm) and methane is greater than 1,774 parts per billion (ppb), both very likely much higher than any time in at least 650 kyr (during which CO2 remained between 180 and 300 ppm and methane between 320 and 790 ppb). The recent rate of change is dramatic and unprecedented; increases in CO2 never exceeded 30 ppm in 1 kyr – yet now CO2 has risen by 30 ppm in just the last 17 years.

For more information, see FAQ 7.1, extracted from Chapter 7 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

How reliable are the models used to make projections of future climate change?

There is considerable confidence that climate models provide credible quantitative estimates of future climate change, particularly at continental scales and above. This confidence comes from the foundation of the models in accepted physical principles and from their ability to reproduce observed features of current climate and past climate changes. Confidence in model estimates is higher for some climate variables (e.g., temperature) than for others (e.g., precipitation). Over several decades of development, models have consistently provided a robust and unambiguous picture of significant climate warming in response to increasing greenhouse gases.

For more information, see FAQ 8.1, extracted from Chapter 8 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Can individual extreme events be explained by greenhouse warming?

Changes in climate extremes are expected as the climate warms in response to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases resulting from human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels. However, determining whether a specific, single extreme event is due to a specific cause, such as increasing greenhouse gases, is difficult, if not impossible, for two reasons:

  1. extreme events are usually caused by a combination of factors;
  2. a wide range of extreme events is a normal occurrence even in an unchanging climate.

Nevertheless, analysis of the warming observed over the past century suggests that the likelihood of some extreme events, such as heat waves, has increased due to greenhouse warming, and that the likelihood of others, such as frost or extremely cold nights, has decreased. For example, a recent study estimates that human influences have more than doubled the risk of a very hot European summer like that of 2003.

For more information, see FAQ 9.1, extracted from Chapter 9 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Can the warming of the 20th century be explained by natural variability?

It is very unlikely that the 20th-century warming can be explained by natural causes. The late 20th century has been unusually warm. Palaeoclimatic reconstructions show that the second half of the 20th century was likely the warmest 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 1300 years. This rapid warming is consistent with the scientific understanding of how the climate should respond to a rapid increase in greenhouse gases like that which has occurred over the past century, and the warming is inconsistent with the scientific understanding of how the climate should respond to natural external factors such as variability in solar output and volcanic activity.

Climate models provide a suitable tool to study the various influences on the Earth’s climate. When the effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases are included in the models, as well as natural external factors, the models produce good simulations of the warming that has occurred over the past century. The models fail to reproduce the observed warming when run using only natural factors. When human factors are included, the models also simulate a geographic pattern of temperature change around the globe similar to that which has occurred in recent decades. This spatial pattern, which has features such as a greater warming at high northern latitudes, differs from the most important patterns of natural climate variability that are associated with internal climate processes, such as El Niño.

For more information, see FAQ 9.2, extracted from Chapter 9 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Are extreme events, like heat waves, droughts or floods, expected to change as the Earth’s climate changes?

Yes; the type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth’s climate changes, and these changes could occur even with relatively small mean climate changes. Changes in some types of extreme events have already been observed, for example, increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and heavy precipitation events (see FAQ 3.3).

For more information, see FAQ 10.1, extracted from Chapter 10 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

How likely are major or abrupt climate changes, such as loss of ice sheets or changes in global ocean circulation?

Abrupt climate changes, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the rapid loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet or large-scale changes of ocean circulation systems, are not considered likely to occur in the 21st century, based on currently available model results. However, the occurrence of such changes becomes increasingly more likely as the perturbation of the climate system progresses.

For more information, see FAQ 10.2, extracted from Chapter 10 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

If emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced, how quickly do their concentrations in the atmosphere decrease?

The adjustment of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to reductions in emissions depends on the chemical and physical processes that remove each gas from the atmosphere. Concentrations of some greenhouse gases decrease almost immediately in response to emission reduction, while others can actually continue to increase for centuries even with reduced emissions.

For more information, see FAQ 10.2, extracted from Chapter 10 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Do projected changes in climate vary from region to region?

Climate varies from region to region. This variation is driven by the uneven distribution of solar heating, the individual responses of the atmosphere, oceans and land surface, the interactions between these, and the physical characteristics of the regions. The perturbations of the atmospheric constituents that lead to global changes affect certain aspects of these complex interactions.

Some human-induced factors that affect climate (‘forcings’) are global in nature, while others differ from one region to another. For example, carbon dioxide, which causes warming, is distributed evenly around the globe, regardless of where the emissions originate, whereas sulphate aerosols (small particles) that offset some of the warming tend to be regional in their distribution.

Furthermore, the response to forcings is partly governed by feedback processes that may operate in different regions from those in which the forcing is greatest. Thus, the projected changes in climate will also vary from region to region.

For more information, see FAQ 11.1, extracted from Chapter 11 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA".

Climate change impacts, adaptations and vulnerabilities

What impacts of climate change have already been observed?

Regional climate change is already affecting many natural systems. For instance, it is increasingly being observed that snow and ice are melting and frozen ground is thawing, hydrological and biological systems are changing and in some cases being disrupted, migrations are starting earlier, and species' geographic ranges are shifting towards the poles.

Despite remaining gaps in knowledge, it is likely that these effects are linked to human influence on climate. At the regional level, however, responses to natural variability are difficult to separate from the effects of climate change.

Some previously unanticipated impacts of regional climate change are just starting to become apparent. For instance, melting glaciers can threaten mountain settlements and water resources, and damage associated with coastal flooding are increasing. More at greenfacts.org

What impacts are expected in the future?

What impacts are expected on natural systems, on human populations, in specific regions? What is their magnitude? What are the projected impacts of extreme climate events?

Impacts on natural systems

Over the course of the 21st century, many impacts are expected to occur in natural systems. For instance, changes in precipitation and the melting of ice and snow are expected to increase flood risks in some areas while causing droughts in others. If there is significant warming the capacity of ecosystems to adapt will be exceeded, with negative consequences such as an increased risk of extinction of species.

Impacts on human populations

The most vulnerable people are in general the poor, since they have less capacity to adapt, and their livelihoods are often dependent on resources that are linked to climate.

Impacts on specific regions

Africa is found to be particularly vulnerable to climate change, because of existing pressures on its ecosystems and its low capacity to adapt. On all continents, water supply and the threat to coastal areas will be an issue. Overall future impacts are expected to be negative, although some positive effects are also expected initially, such as an increase in agricultural productivity at high latitudes accompanying a moderate warming, or decreased heating needs in cold regions.

Magnitude of expected impacts

Impacts will depend on the magnitude of the temperature increase. For instance, some crops at mid- to high latitudes will have higher productivity if local temperature increases by 1-3 °C, but will be negatively affected beyond that. If higher temperatures persist after the 21st century it could result in very large impacts. For instance, the large sea-level rise that would result from the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets would have major repercussions on coastal areas. The cost associated with the effects of climate change is projected to increase over time with rising temperatures.

Impacts of extreme climate events

A projected increase in the severity and frequency of droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather events is expected to cause major impacts over the course of this century.

More at greenfacts.org

How do people adapt to climate change?

What are the current adaptation strategies? What makes populations vulnerable to climate change? What are the relative roles of mitigation and adaptation?

Current adaptation strategies

Humans need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, for instance through technological solutions such as coastal defences and changes in consumption habits. Humans are already adapting to climate change, and further adaptation efforts will be necessary during coming decades. However, adaptation alone is not expected to be able to cope will all projected effects since the options diminish and the costs increase with rising temperatures.

Vulnerability of populations to climate change

Vulnerability of human populations to climate change and its consequences can be affected by other factors, such as pollution, conflicts, or epidemics such as AIDS. An emphasis on sustainable development can help human societies reduce their vulnerability to climate change. However, climate change itself can become an impediment to their development.

Mitigation and adaptation

Mitigation measures that aim to reduce greenhouse gases emissions can help avoid, reduce or delay impacts, and should be implemented in order to ensure that adaptation capacity is not exceeded.

More information at greenfacts.org

Mitigation of climate change

What are the current trends in global greenhouse gas emissions?

Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown markedly since pre-industrial times, with a 70% increase from 1970 to 2004 alone. Over this period, emissions from the transport and energy sectors have more than doubled. Policies put in place in some countries have been effective in reducing emissions in those countries to a certain degree, but not sufficiently to counteract the global growth in emissions.

Without additional measures to mitigate climate change, global green house gas emissions will continue to grow over the coming decades and beyond. Most of this increase would come from developing countries, where per capita emissions are still considerably lower than those in developed countries. More at greenfacts.org

See also United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (unfccc.int)

See also FAQ: What are the current trends in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe?

What actions can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

What are the costs, the co-benefits and the longer term implications of mitigation actions? How can changes in lifestyle and behaviour patterns contribute? How can different sectors reduce emissions? Which actions have been taken in Europe to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Cost of mitigation

Mitigation measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a certain cost. However, they also constitute an economic benefit by reducing the impacts of climate change, and the costs associated with them. In addition, they can bring economic benefits by reducing local air pollution and energy resource depletion.

If the benefits of avoided climate change are taken into account and a “carbon price” is established for each unit of greenhouse gas emissions, this could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in products, technologies and processes which emit less greenhouse gases. The resulting mitigation potential is substantial and could offset the projected growth of global emissions over the coming decades or reduce emissions below current levels.

Mitigation measures could contribute to stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2100 or later. To achieve low stabilization levels, stringent mitigation efforts are needed in the coming decades. This could reduce global GDP by up to a few percent.

Changes in lifestyle and behaviours

Changes in lifestyle and behaviours that favor resource conservation can contribute to climate change mitigation.

Co-benefits of mitigation

Mitigation measures can also have other benefits for society, such as health cost savings resulting from reduced air pollution. However, mitigation in one country or group of countries could lead to higher emissions elsewhere or effects on the global economy.

Reduction potential of different sectors

No one sector or technology can address the entire mitigation challenge. All sectors including buildings, industry, energy production, agriculture, transport, forestry, and waste management could contribute to the overall mitigation efforts, for instance through greater energy efficiency. Many technologies and processes which emit less greenhouse gases are already commercially available or will be in the coming decades.

Longer term implications of mitigation actions

In order to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, emissions would have to stop increasing and then decline. The lower the stabilization level aimed for, the more quickly this decline would need to occur. World-wide investments in mitigation technologies, as well as research into new energy sources, will be necessary to achieve stabilization. Delaying emission reduction measures limits the opportunities to achieve low stabilization levels and increases the risk of severe climate change impacts.

More at greenfacts.org

How can governments create incentives for mitigation?

What are the implications of different policy instruments? How is climate change mitigation linked to sustainable development?

Implications of different policy instruments

A wide variety of policy tools can be applied by governments to create incentives for mitigation action, such as regulation, taxation, tradable permit schemes, subsidies, and voluntary agreements. Past experience shows that there are advantages and drawbacks for any given policy instrument. For instance, while regulations and standards can provide some certainty about emission levels, they may not encourage innovations and more advanced technologies. Taxes and charges, however, can provide incentives, but cannot guarantee a particular level of emissions. It is important to consider the environmental impacts of policies and instruments, their cost effectiveness, institutional feasibility and how costs and benefits are distributed.

Although the impact of the Kyoto protocol’s first commitment period 2008-2012 on global carbon emissions is expected to be limited, it has allowed the establishment of a global response to the climate problem as well as the creation of an international carbon market and other mechanisms that may provide the foundation for future mitigation efforts.

Links between climate change mitigation and sustainable development

Switching to more sustainable development paths can make a major contribution to climate change mitigation. Policies that contribute to both climate change mitigation and sustainable development include those related to energy efficiency, renewable energies, and conservation of natural habitats. In general, sustainable development can increase the capacity for adaptation and mitigation, and reduce vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

More at greenfacts.org

EEA activities on the mitigation of climate change in Europe

What are the current trends in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe?

Providing and analysing the trends in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe are two important activities of the EEA in the area of climate change:

  • The EEA compiles annually the European Community greenhouse gas inventory report, which reflects greenhouse gas emissions from EU Member States since 1990.
  • The EEA produces annually a report on GHG trends and projections in Europe, which analyses past trends and future projections of greenhouse gas emissions. It also assesses progress of the EU-15 and individual countries towards their respective Kyoto targets.
  • The EEA proposes:
    • a GHG web viewer, which allows to search, visualise and download greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by country, type of greenhouse gas, year and sector;
    • a CITL viewer, which enables users to better assess the data on installations and emissions covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, data which are contained in the Community Independent Transaction Log (CITL);
    • GHG country profiles, which display key data on greenhouse gas emissions for individual EU Member States, the EU-27 and the EU-15.

What are the current trends in greenhouse gas emissions in my country?

The EEA compiles greenhouse gas (GHG) country profiles, containing the latest information about greenhouse gas emissions trends in each EU Member State. The data are compiled from the annual European Community greenhouse gas inventory report, which reflects greenhouse gas emissions from all EU Member States since 1990.

Data can also be explored in more detail through EEA's greenhouse gas data viewer, which allows to search, visualise and download greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by country, type of greenhouse gas, year and sector.

In addition, a CITL viewer enables users to better assess the data on installations and emissions covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, data which are contained in the Community Independent Transaction Log (CITL).

The EEA also produces annually a report on GHG trends and projections in Europe, which analyses past trends and future projections of greenhouse gas emissions. It also assesses progress of the EU-15 and individual countries towards their respective Kyoto targets.

How much emission reductions has my country achieved?

 

The table below shows total GHG emissions in 2005 (excluding carbon sinks) compared to both 1990 and the base year under the Kyoto Protocol.

EC’s GHG Inventory Report Table
Click to view full-size image…

(1) For EU-15 the base year for CO2, CH4 and N2O is 1990; for the fluorinated gases 12 Member States have selected 1995 as the base year, whereas Austria, France and Italy have chosen 1990. As the EU-15 inventory is the sum of Member States' inventories, the EU-15 base year estimates for fluorinated gas emissions are the total of 1995 emissions for 12 Member States and 1990 emissions for Austria, France and Italy. The EU-15 base year emissions also include emissions from deforestation for the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom ('The European Community's initial report under the Kyoto Protocol' (EEA, 2006)).

(2) Malta did not provide GHG emission estimates for 2005, therefore the data provided in this table are based on gap filling (see Chapter 1.8.2).

(3) EU-27 does not have a common Kyoto Protocol target.

More data can be accessed via the EEA greenhouse gases data viewer.

Will my country meet its Kyoto target?

Overview of progress for EU Member States and other EEA member countries

Table 1

Notes: National projections provided by 1 June 2007 have been taken into account in this report.

  1. Projected net removal from carbon sink activities (land-use change and forestry).
  2. Denmark projects it will reach its target by initiating new national climate initiatives, although these had not yet been identified by June 2007.
  3. In July 2007, Spain adopted a Plan of Urgent Measures against Climate Change. Spain plans that these measures will allow it to fulfil its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Greenhouse gas emissions projections for 2010 in Europe

Table 2

What is Europe doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The EEA report on greenhouse gas trends and projections analyses the actions (policies and measures) already taken or planned by EU Member States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Domestic policies and measures take place within the national boundaries of the country and include:

  • the promotion of electricity from renewable energy;
  • improvements in energy efficiency;
  • promotion of biofuels in transport;
  • reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from cars;
  • recovery of gases from landfills and reduction of fluorinated gases.

See also: Climate change policies.

What is the EU emission trading scheme?

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is the European Union's climate change policy tool, which helps industries to cut their CO2 emissions in a cost-effective way. It requires a cap on emissions for all large CO2 emission sources.

In 2005, the EU ETS covered approximately:

  • 47 % of the total CO2 emissions in the EU-15;
  • 39 % of total greenhouse gas emissions in EU-15;
  • 49 % of the total CO2 emission in the EU-25;
  • 41 % of total greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-25.

In general, EU ETS information has been used by EU Member States as one input for calculating total CO2 emissions for the energy and industrial processes sectors in this report. However, an explicit quantification of the contribution of the EU ETS to total CO2 emissions at sectoral and sub-sectoral level is not yet available for EU-15 or EU-25.

In the EU-15, the ETS is estimated to cut 3.4 % from base-year emissions.

See more information on the European Commission website.

What are the Kyoto mechanisms?

The Kyoto Mechanisms help developed countries to achieve their Kyoto targets by gaining credits through carbon cutting activities in other countries. They also help the transfer of low-carbon technologies to other countries.

The projected use of Kyoto mechanisms by ten of the EU-15 Member States will reduce emissions by 2010 by 2.5 % from base-year levels. These countries are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. For more information on Kyoto mechanisms see the UNFCCC website.

What are the EU Kyoto targets?

The EU-15 has a Kyoto target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8 % from base-year levels (see below) by 2012. Within this overall target, each EU-15 member state has a differentiated reduction target; some should reduce emissions while others are allowed a limited increase. New Member States have individual targets except Cyprus and Malta, which have no targets. Countries can achieve these targets by a variety of means.

What are base-year emissions?

What is the base year? How can it be used to track performance towards targets for Member States, EU-15 and EU-27?

Under the Kyoto Protocol the GHG emission level in the 'base year' is the relevant starting point for tracking progress of domestic emissions for EU-15 and all Member States which have a Kyoto target. The EU-27 does not have a Kyoto target and an aggregated base year for the EU-27 is therefore not applicable in any discussion of progress towards Kyoto targets.

EU-15

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU-15 has taken on a common commitment to reducing emissions by 8 % between 2008–2012 compared to the emissions in the so called 'base year'. The base year is not a 'year' per se, but corresponds to an emission level from which emission reductions will take place.

The EU-15 Member States have distributed the burden of reaching the – 8 % target among themselves, allowing individual Member States to take on varying degrees of emission reductions compared to their base-year emissions. Thus, progress towards targets for each Member State starts from its own individual base-year emissions level.

For carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), 1990 is used as the 'base year' for all EU-15 Member States. But for fluorinated gases, the EU-15 Member States can choose to use the emission levels in 1995 instead. Twelve of the 15 Member States have chosen to use 1995 as their base year for fluorinated gas emissions.

For the EU-15, base-year emissions were slightly higher than the 1990 levels. Therefore, progress towards the – 8 % common target is better. In practice, EU-15 base-year emissions can be considered close to 1990 emissions.

EU-27

In March 2007, the Council of the European Union decided that EU would make a firm independent commitment to achieving at least a 20 % reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1990. Nonetheless, the relevant 'base year' for the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol should be taken into account when distributing the burden among Member State

What is the EC's GHG inventory report?

 

What?

This report is the EU's official submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on total domestic greenhouse gas emissions for the period 1990–2006. Domestic, in this context, refers to emissions from within the territory of the EU. It contains information about GHG emissions for the EU-15 and EU-27 and represents the aggregated total of the national inventories. It also comprehensively explains the process by which EU emissions are derived and quality checked.

Why?

As a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the EC has to submit its GHG inventory each year to fulfil its reporting obligations.

How is it relevant?

This report is the most relevant and accurate source of information on greenhouse gas emissions for the EU. Formally speaking, this report only plays a role under the UNFCCC — not its Kyoto Protocol. Nevertheless, it can be used to track the EU's performance when it comes to reducing domestic greenhouse emissions (i.e. emissions within its territory) towards meeting the Kyoto targets.

When?

The EEA report on the EC GHG inventory is released annually after the final submission to the UNFCCC secretariat.

See a href="http://unfccc.int/">UNFCCC for more information on reporting and reporting requirements.

What is the data source?

 

The EC GHG inventory is compiled on the basis of the inventories of the EC Member States for EU-15 and EU-27. Member States are required to submit their national inventories and inventory reports under Council Decision No. 280/2004/EC to the European Commission, DG Environment.

Who prepared the report?

The European Commission's DG Environment in consultation with the Member States has the overall responsibility for the EC inventory. The EEA, assisted by its topic centre on air and climate change, is responsible for the actual compilation of the EC inventory report in close cooperation with Eurostat and the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

What is the scope of the EC GHG inventory report?

Which geographical area is covered? What is the time period covered? Which gases are covered? Which sectors are covered?

 

Geographical coverage

The report contains information on total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the EU-15 and EU-27.

Time coverage

The GHG emission data are reported for the period 1990 to 2006.

The GHG emissions data in the report always represent the emissions from two years prior to the year of publication. Hence, 2005 GHG emission are reported in 2007. This is in accordance with UNFCCC requirements; all parties to the UNFCCC report using the same procedure. It is normally not possible to come up with robust total GHG emission data earlier due to the availability of energy statistics and the execution of quality checks.

Greenhouse gases

The greenhouse gases (GHG) covered by the report are:

  • CO2 (carbon dioxide);
  • CH4 (methane);
  • N2O (nitrous oxide);
  • three groups of flourinated gaseas (HFCs, PFCs and SF6).

Sectors

The report covers emissions emitted within the territory of the EC and splits up information into trends within the main sectors defined by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, www.ipcc.ch):

  • energy (including the transport sector);
  • industrial processes;
  • solvents and other products use;
  • agriculture;
  • land use, land use change and forestry;
  • waste.

Compilation process

In addition, the report contains both an overview of how Member States compile their inventories as well as a comprehensive description of how the EC compiles its GHG emission inventory, including quality assurance and quality control aspects.

What is the GHG trends and projections report?

What?

The report presents an assessment of the current progress of EU Member States, EU candidate countries and other EEA member countries towards their respective targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

Why?

The complilation work for this report supports the preparation of the annual evaluation report of the European Commission to the Council and European Parliament (See European Commission website). However, the publication of this EEA report does not respond to any specific reporting obligations, as opposed to the annual EC GHG inventory report.

How is it relevant?

The report provides an annual, up-to-date assessment of the progress made by countries towards their Kyoto targets.

The EU-15 has a common target under the Protocol to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 8 %, compared to the base year. The EU-27 does not have a common Kyoto target. This report builds on the information reported in the annual EC GHG inventory report and includes projections for the EU. It can be used for tracking the EU's performance when it comes to reducing domestic greenhouse emissions (i.e. emissions within its territory) towards meeting the Kyoto targets. It also analyses the use carbon sinks as well as the so called 'flexible mechanisms', which Parties to the Kyoto Protocol are allowed to make to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions outside their national territories — as a supplement to domestic reductions.

Furthermore, the report aims at supporting climate policy makers by analysing sectoral trends of greenhouse gas emissions and describing the effect of the policies and measures implemented in the European Union to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the country profiles provided as annexes present detailed information at national level.

When?

The EEA report on GHG trends and projections is released annually.

What is the data source?

The report is based on data and information submitted by the countries to the European Commission and the EEA before 1 June 2007. For the past trends (1990-2005 emissions), it is entirely based on EEA Technical report No 7/2007 Annual European Community greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2005 and inventory report 2007. See press release (15 June 2007).

Who prepared the report?

The report is prepared by the EEA and its European Topic Centre on Air and Climate Change (ETC/ACC).

What is the scope of the GHG Trends and projections report?

Which geographical area is covered? What is the time period covered? Which gases are covered? Which sectors are covered?

Geographical coverage

The EEA report covers 33 countries including:

  • EU-15 Member States: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.
  • New Member States: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia.
  • Acceding countries: Croatia, Turkey.
  • Other EEA member countries: Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Switzerland.

An individual annex is provided for each country covered by the report.

Time coverage

The GHG emission data are reported for the period 1990 to 2005. Projections are reported for the years 2010 and 2020.

Sectors

The report covers emissions emitted within the territory of the EC and presents GHG emission trends in the main GHG emitting sectors defined by the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, www.ipcc.ch):

  • energy (including the transport sector);
  • industrial processes;
  • solvents and other products use;
  • agriculture;
  • land use, land use change and forestry;
  • waste.

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