Climate Change and Air Quality Strategy

Last updated: 30 September 2021

5. Climate Change

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) create a ‘greenhouse effect’. This is where infrared radiation, in the form of heat, (and short wave radiation) from the Sun is trapped causing the Earth to warm. As concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere increase, our planet gets hotter.

GHGs come, or are emitted, from various sources or activities. The majority of these involve processing naturally occurring materials containing carbon and/or nitrogen (using combustion, chemicals, and/or bacteria). Mankind has increasingly used these activities over time to produce products (for example food, cement and metals) and energy (for example electricity) resulting in larger quantities of GHGs being released. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are approximately 45% higher now than they were before the industrial revolution and this is largely due to burning fossil fuels for energy.

Human activity has also reduced the amount of carbon dioxide that can be absorbed and stored in natural carbon sinks. Plants and oceans absorb around 57% of the carbon dioxide that’s produced. Removing trees (deforestation) and affecting plants’ ability to photosynthesize reduces the rate that carbon can be sequestered. Furthermore, as oceans get warmer from the greenhouse effect, they are less able to dissolve carbon dioxide.

The Earth’s surface is now, on average, 1°C warmer than it was since the pre-industrial period. The UK’s average temperature has increased by 0.8°C (comparing 2008-2017 with 1961-1990) - the nine warmest years in the UK have occurred since 2002. The warming of our planet is: increasing the rate at which polar and glacier ice is melting, causing more extreme weather events and a rise in sea levels, and negatively affecting biodiversity.

95% of respondents to the engagement survey reported that they were concerned about climate change and 79% stated that they are more concerned about it than they were 2 years ago. Climate change is affecting 3 in 4 Britons and this seems consistent with the 70% in Buckinghamshire identifying that climate change had affected either themselves or their family.

More information about climate change and its effects on the environment, food, water, and health and is available on the GOV.UK website.

The Global Challenge

Climate change is a global challenge. It is critical that action to reduce carbon emissions to net zero is taken by all countries, in particular those which account for the most emissions and can achieve the biggest reductions. Together China, the USA and India account for about 50% of global emissions as shown in table 1 below.

Annual global carbon emissions and those of China, USA, India and United Kingdom (Table 1)
Country Total greenhouse gas emissions (kilotonnes CO²) Percentage of global emissions
Global 37 million 100%
China 10.06 million 28%
USA 5.42 million 15%
India 2.65 million 7%
United Kingdom 366 thousand 1%

Emissions Data

There are two approaches which can be taken to measuring carbon emissions in an area; these are known as the generation and consumption based approaches. The generation based approach looks at emissions which are physically created within a country or region, for example the exhaust emissions from cars in the UK.

The consumption based approach looks at emissions associated with the goods and services consumed in a country. This means, for example, that emissions from manufacturing a mobile phone in China but which is purchased by someone in the UK, would be attributed to the UK as the product is consumed here.

These two approaches lead to different emissions with the consumption based figure being higher in the UK than the generation based figure. This is because the UK tends to import more products than it exports.

The United Kingdom’s national reporting approach uses the generation based approach. These are the emissions which the UK has greater control over and represents the physical emissions which arise here. As such, throughout this document the figures quoted reflect the generation based method.

Most of the emissions data referred to in this document are specifically referring to carbon emissions (carbon dioxide, CO²). However, some refer to a broader set of six greenhouse gases (GHGs) each with a different capacity to influence the climate. The overall impact of these emissions is accounted for by reporting this broader set of gases units of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO²e). Where CO²e is referred to, the impact of this broader set of GHGs has been included in the figures.