Climate change and energy

From bigger energy bills to unpredictable weather, climate change and energy affects everyone in Plymouth, so the more we can do to save energy and cut carbon the better.

Although this can be a challenge, the good news is that dealing with these issues provides a whole range of opportunities, including saving money, creating jobs, improving living standards and enhancing the city environment.

Climate’ refers to our weather, or more accurately, the bigger picture of our weather and temperatures over time. You can’t be sure that the climate is changing after one unusual year of weather. Instead, you would look for longer term changes to the patterns of weather and temperatures that we experience across years and decades.

Causes of climate change

Climate change is caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other polluting gases in our atmosphere.

The gases trap heat by forming a blanket around the Earth - like the glass of a greenhouse and they stay in the atmosphere for many years. As they build up, the planet's temperature rises. Greenhouse gases are released by burning fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - and by cutting down forests.

As the Earth warms up, other things - like the disappearance of ice and release of frozen methane - are helping push temperatures even higher.  

The biggest contributors to climate change in Plymouth are from road transport, heating and powering homes and electricity used in industry.

There is overwhelming evidence that the changes we are beginning to see in our climate, predominantly in the form of global warming, are caused by human activity.

The earth is surrounded by a layer of gases, called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and lots of others. When the sun shines light and heat down on the earth, a lot of that heat is reflected back up from the earth’s surface into space, but some of this heat is trapped by the layer of greenhouse gases, which we call our atmosphere.

When we release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by driving our cars, burning gas in our boilers, coal in power stations and lots of other things we do, those gases go up into the air and collect with the layer of greenhouse gases around the earth. This means that the layer is getting thicker, which results in more of the sun’s heat being trapped in our atmosphere, which is causing our planet to heat up.

What’s bad about climate change

If climate change meant that the whole planet warmed up just a tiny bit, then it would not be so bad. The problem is that our weather and temperature patterns around the world are in a very delicate balance, so if some aspects of our climate change, it can trigger much bigger changes in other areas. This means that some areas are likely to become a lot hotter, creating new deserts and more droughts, whilst other places will see a lot more rain, causing many more floods.

You will probably have heard about the ice caps melting at the North and South Poles. This is caused by global warming and will cause two other main problems. The first problem is that sea levels will rise, which will affect coastal areas like Plymouth and globally will mean a reduction in the area of land where people can live. The second problem is that the polar ice, which has been frozen for millions of years, has lots of carbon dioxide ‘locked up’ inside it, so as the ice melts there will be a lot of extra carbon dioxide being released into our atmosphere, causing our planet to heat up even more. When a ‘cause’ like global warming, has an ‘effect’ like melting ice caps, and the ice caps melting causes even more global warming, and so on, we call it a ‘feedback mechanism’. There are other feedback mechanisms to do with the temperature change in the sea and also to do with changes to weather systems.