Climate Change

Climate change is the biggest threat to nature and humanity in the 21st century.
It's nearly impossible to overstate the threat of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising more rapidly than predicted and the world is warming more quickly in response.

Global warming will have catastrophic effects such as accelerating sea level rise, droughts, floods, storms and heat waves. These will impact everyone, including some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people, disrupting food production, and threatening vitally important species, habitats and ecosystems.

Despite compelling scientific evidence, governments and businesses have responded with painful slowness. Even if countries fulfil all current mitigation pledges, the world will still face between 2.6 and 4°C of warming.

As we work to reduce emissions, we must simultaneously begin to adapt to the increasing impacts of climate change.

What is climate change?
What causes climate change?
Impacts of climate change
What WWF is doing about climate change
What you can do

Renewable Energy: Access and Investment

Ahead of the Ban Ki-moon summit in September 2014, WWF has partnered with The Guardian to profile the necessary trigger points to move energy investments in the face of climate change. Go to http://bit.ly/WWFREhub for more information.

WWF’s climate and energy vision is a response both to the science and to new economic and political realities. We will work for a safe and sustainable future for people, places and species, based on an equitable low-carbon society that is resilient to climate change.

Samantha Smith, Leader WWF Global Climate & Energy Initiative

What is climate change?

Climate change is the shift of weather conditions over time. The average temperature on the planet has been increasing in recent decades (global warming), resulting in more extreme and unpredictable weather across the world. As the problem escalates, some places are getting hotter, some colder, some wetter and others drier.

What causes climate change?

Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere and regulate our climate. These gases exist naturally, but humans have been adding even more carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels for energy (coal, oil, and natural gas) and by cutting down forests. Because more greenhouse gases trap more heat, average temperatures around the world are increasing. At the same time, the Earth’s oceans are also absorbing some of this extra carbon dioxide, making them more acidic and less hospitable for sea life.

Earth is a very special planet – it is close enough to the sun to receive a lot of energy, but far enough not to be scorched.

It is in what you might call the "Green Belt" or habitable zone, where the conditions are just right for life as we know it.

It is in what you might call the "Green Belt" or habitable zone, where the conditions are just right for life as we know it.

This layer keeps the globe warm like a blanket, shielding it from the cold universe – commonly referred to as the greenhouse effect.

While not being the most potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver for the greenhouse effect.

And this is where we have a problem.

The cause of climate change is the unlimited burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas - releasing CO2 in the atmosphere at an ever increasing rate.

Because of this the layer of greenhouse gas gets thicker, which in turn makes the Earth warmer.

The reason we do this is to satisfy our hunger for energy. But thanks to human ingenuity there are now smarter ways to make energy.

Culprit coal

The biggest climate polluter is the global power sector, and it generates around 40% of all global electricity from coal. We need electricity - but when you take into account the true cost of coal there are much better ways to get it!

According to the International Energy Agency the power sector is responsible for 37% of all man-made Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. It creates about 23 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – in excess of 700 tonnes a second.

In turn, this CO2 continues to heat up our planet and pose an unprecedented threat to us and the environment. Read more here on the impacts of climate change.

Generating electricity through the burning of fossil fuels, in particular carbon-heavy coal, has a greater impact on the atmosphere than any other single human activity.

Coal is the world's most widely available fossil fuel

Weaning humanity off coal will not be easy. There is an estimated 2 billion people with no access to domestic electricity, and recoverable reserves of coal exist in about 70 countries, according to the World Coal Institute, an industry lobby group (the largest are in the United States, Russia and China). It is considered a cheap form of energy.

But coal is not cheap - if you have to pay for it all

The true cost of coal cannot be found on any balance sheet, but in the lives and health of people and ecosystems. If the global power sector could be made fully accountable for the true costs of pollution and climate change, it would probably turn away from fossil fuel overnight.

Too many governments still subsidize coal production and this distorts the energy market. OECD countries support their coal industry with a whopping $30 billion USD annually.

Much cleaner renewable energies are hampered in their ability to compete with a dirty fuel that is subsidized. Politicians have the power to remove fossil-fuel subsidies or, better still, transfer them to renewable energy.

When the true cost is taken into account, renewable energy begins to look by far the best option for a healthy and sustainable future.

Impacts of climate change

Climate change and food security

Climate change will have a significant impact on food availability, food accessibility and food system’s stability in many parts of the world. Climate change poses a significant risk of increased crop failure, loss of livestock and impact on local food security. In some areas drier and warmer conditions are predicted, elsewhere wetter conditions are expected and will affect agricultural practices. It will affect human health and livelihoods, as well as people’s purchasing power, food markets and food security on a household level.

Most of Africa relies on rain-fed agriculture. As a result, it is highly vulnerable to changes in climate variability, seasonal shifts, and precipitation patterns. Any amount of warming will result in increased water stress. Roughly 70 percent of the population lives by farming, and 40 percent of all exports are agricultural products. One-third of the income in Africa is generated by agriculture, and crop production and livestock farming account for about half of household income. Agricultural production in many African countries and regions is projected to be severely compromised by climate variability and change areas suited for agriculture. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020.

In addition, natural disasters will be more intense, while pest outbreaks for both crops and livestock will become more frequent. It will change temperatures and rainfall patterns, influencing plant seasons and affecting certain crop yields. Rain-fed agriculture-based livelihood systems, like most parts of Africa, are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.

At the same time, we need to protect forests. Forests do so much: they purify our air, improve water quality, keep soils intact, provide us with food, wood products and medicines, and are home to many of the world’s most endangered wildlife.

In fact, an estimated 1.6 billion people worldwide rely on forests for their livelihoods, including 60 million indigenous people who depend on forests for their subsistence.

Forests also help protect the planet from climate change by absorbing massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major source of pollution that causes climate change.

Unfortunately, forests are being destroyed or damaged at an alarming rate by logging and burning to clear land for agriculture or livestock. These activities release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Scientists estimate up to 20 percent of global carbon emissions come from deforestation –greater than emissions from every car, truck and plane on the planet combined. So instead of forests helping us to solve the climate crisis, deforestation is making the situation even worse.

Climate change and water

Rivers and lakes supply drinking water for people and animals, as well as being vital for agriculture and industry. Oceans and seas provide food for billions of people.

Climate change will have major and unpredictable effects on the world's water systems, including more floods and droughts. Extremes of drought and flooding will become more common, causing displacement and conflict and less fresh water means less agriculture, food and income.

Particular ‘hot spots’ include dry regions, areas highly dependent on groundwater, small island developing states, low-lying deltas and fragile mountainous areas.

Management of water resources is central to successful adaptation planning and implementation, and to building the resilience of communities and countries.

Like forests, oceans are vital ‘carbon sinks’ – they absorb huge amounts of CO2, preventing it from reaching the upper atmosphere. But increased water temperatures and higher than normal CO2 concentrations, causing ocean acidification, are already having an impact.

Coral reefs and shellfish are particularly at risk – sensitive coral (and algae living on it) is starved of oxygen, causing dramatic bleaching and eventual death of the coral. The increasing number of tropical storms also poses a significant risk.

Climate change and energy

Energy is essential for poverty reduction, yet the means by which we have been producing energy is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. We have an obligation to provide energy to those who need it, but burning more fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and gas is going to worsen global warming and threaten food and water security further. Changing the way we produce energy is an important way for us to tackle climate change.

To curb and control global warming, we need to keep the Earth below a 2°C (3.4°F) increase in global average temperatures compared to pre-industrial times. There are a multitude of technologies already available which can help us achieve this. By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources. This will solve most of the problems of climate change and dwindling fossil fuel resources. We also need to increase measures to conserve energy in all sectors.

We can show that such a transition is not only possible but also cost-effective, providing energy that is affordable for all and producing it in ways that can be sustained by the global economy and the planet.

However, technologies form just one part of the jigsaw. As important is the political framework – to ensure that the relevant technologies can really thrive. Similarly, it is crucial that businesses and investors are sufficiently informed and prepared to drive forward change rather than wait until it is too late.

We need a revolution in the supply of energy to achieve this. We need to make a drastic switch from the current reliance on fossil fuel energy to a super-efficient system with new low- and zero-carbon technologies. 
 / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon
Dead trees in the Sossusvlei Basin
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

State of the planet

 / ©: NASA
Download the WWF Living Planet Report, which investigates the health of the planet. 

What WWF is doing about climate change

It is nearly impossible to overstate the threat of climate change. New climate research shows that greenhouse gas emissions are rising more rapidly than predicted.

WWF's goal is for the world to develop an equitable low carbon economy by 2050, which is resilient to the level of climate change that is unavoidable. All efforts should be undertaken to keep warming of global average temperature below 2°C (compared to pre-industrial levels).

WWF works on low carbon development and climate policy, clean and smart energy, forests and climate, climate finance, and climate business engagement.

Our work to achieve a "climate-safe" future includes:
  • Advocating a new international climate agreement – one that is just and legally binding
  • Promoting energy efficiency – the most rapid and cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions
  • Promoting renewable energy sources – like wind, solar, and geothermal power
  • Preventing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation – currently responsible for 20% of all emissions
  • Developing and promoting climate change adaptation strategies – to safeguard the most vulnerable people and the most exposed ecosystems.

We also work with businesses to help them prepare for the low-carbon economy.

As part of our work on conserving ecosystems and promoting the sustainable use of natural resources, WWF's forest, freshwater, marine, and species programmes are developing climate change adaptation strategies
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Carlos G. Vallecillo
Alternative energy
© WWF-Canon / Carlos G. Vallecillo

What you can do

We must radically reduce carbon pollution to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and prepare for what cannot be avoided. Each one of us can do our part by:
  • Contacting our representatives - urging government and business leaders and representatives to take action and cut carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
  • Reducing energy use at home and on the road - using less energy and taking steps like switching to fluorescent bulbs for lighting, installing a solar geyser, using public transport or car pooling can go a long way to reducing our footprint.
  • Switching to renewable energy - solar panels and wind turbines use renewable sources of energy that are clean and safe. Consider installing solar panels on your roof, or ask your electricity provider if they have options for you to buy renewable energy power “off the grid”.
  • Joining the movement - make your voice heard by joining the global climate change movement and WWF's Earth Hour and urging the world to work together to combat climate change and to create a better future for our planet.
 
 / ©: National Geographic Stock / Stacy Gold / WWF
Energy-saving light bulb
© National Geographic Stock / Stacy Gold / WWF

Reduce your footprint

You can be a hero and help save the planet by making simple lifestyle changes. See WWF's guide to green living. 

Facts & Figures

  • The US and China are the largest contributors of greenhouse gases.

    Catastrophic climate change may yet be avoided if global average temperatures rise by less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

    The world has already warmed 0.74°C over the past 100 years.

    The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990.

    Arctic sea ice has declined to the lowest levels on record.

    WWF estimates 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population will be gone by 2050.