Climate change: What it is, how it works and why it’s important

The quest to “master nature” to serve human needs has led to unintended and alarming consequences. News today is rife with startling reminders of how climate change is affecting people around the world, from wildfires and floods to the loss of biodiversity and even human lives. But what exactly is climate change?

Climate change refers to the long-term transformation of Earth’s weather conditions. The phenomenon is caused by a number of natural and human-induced factors. Imagine the Earth as a giant greenhouse. Normally, the sun’s heat comes in and keeps things warm enough for us to live comfortably. But when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy, we release extra gases into the air. These gases trap more heat, making our “greenhouse” warmer than it should be. This leads to glaciers melting, sea levels rising, and weather events like hurricanes and droughts becoming more extreme and frequent.

The growth and prosperity of businesses and organizations around the world should not come at the cost of the environment. While the challenge might seem overwhelming, there is a path to a sustainable future. Here, we explain some key terms related to climate change, such as greenhouse gases and net zero, and also uncover some of the tools organizations can adopt to address climate change and promote development in an integrated and balanced way.

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What is the greenhouse effect?

Climate change is largely caused by a process called the greenhouse effect. When the sun’s energy reaches the Earth, some of it is reflected back to space, while the rest is absorbed and re-radiated by greenhouse gases. These gases include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases naturally present in the atmosphere.

Think of it as a blanket. Just as a blanket keeps you warm by trapping body heat, greenhouse gases keep the Earth warm by trapping heat from the sun. This heat helps to maintain the Earth’s average temperature, making it hospitable for life as we know it.

In recent years, however, human activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, have increased concentrations of these greenhouse gases. The result? An increase in global temperatures that is fundamentally altering the planet’s climate system.

Interested in learning more? Read about the basics of the greenhouse effect.

What is net zero?

As global temperatures continue to rise, the Earth’s natural equilibrium is disrupted. Unless we manage the vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions, we will not be able to avert the impending climate crisis. Achieving “net zero” refers to maintaining an overall balance between the greenhouse gases emitted and those removed from the atmosphere. This means that any emissions must be fully compensated, or offset, by the removal of an equivalent amount of CO2 over a given period of time.

Net zero is our most potent weapon to combat the climate crisis. Embracing the shift towards net-zero emissions provides environmental benefits as well as economic, social and health advantages. That’s why many countries, companies and organizations are currently working towards ambitious net-zero targets as part of concerted international efforts to combat the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Is net zero the same as carbon neutral? How do we reach the world’s net-zero targets? Find all the answers and more in our article “Embracing net zero: A crucial step towards a sustainable future”.

Climate change solutions for a healthy future

Climate change is already causing disruptions across all facets of life, including critical infrastructure like transport, communication networks, energy and water resources. Scientists anticipate that these changes will lead to more frequent disease outbreaks, increased mortality, and the displacement of populations, particularly affecting the world’s most vulnerable communities.

We urgently need innovative strategies to counteract the worst effects of climate change. Embracing nature-based solutions offers a holistic approach to combatting climate change while nurturing the planet’s natural resources for generations to come. Bringing nature into cities by planting trees, reintroducing species into the environment, and restoring coastal ecosystems to mitigate erosion are just a few examples. By leveraging the power of ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and grasslands, these natural climate solutions not only help sequester carbon dioxide but also enhance biodiversity, protect habitats and bolster resilience against extreme weather events.

Curious to know more? Discover how nature-based climate change solutions can pave the way for a healthy future.

What is climate finance?

Humanity is taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. But our commitment to act is not enough – it must be backed by funding. Reversing climate change requires substantial economic resources. These are especially important to help less financially equipped countries meet their climate targets, pay for mitigation and adaptation, and mobilize more climate finance. Many developing countries, who often face the brunt of climate change, don’t have enough financial backing to work on sustainable strategies.

In 2015, at the 21st United Nations climate change conference (COP21), nearly all of the world’s countries committed to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – a climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. It was decided that developed countries would provide financial resources to help developing countries adapt to climate change and phase out their emissions. This financial support is crucial for making the necessary changes to energy systems, infrastructure and industries these countries urgently need to decarbonize their economies and protect themselves from climate hazards.

So what is climate finance? Climate finance is funding at the local, national and transnational level that supports activities needed to combat climate change. These funds sponsor a wide range of initiatives, including both mitigation efforts (actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation strategies (measures to cope with the impacts of climate change). The goal is to secure funds from various sources, including public funds, private investments, international aid, and innovative financial instruments, to enable countries to transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

This topic generates much debate: How much funding is needed? Where should it be spent? You can find all the answers in our article: “Climate finance: The key to a sustainable future”.

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What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Sustainable development is a balancing act – it’s about finding ways for people to live happy, healthy and prosperous lives without harming the planet. Think of it as a journey we’re all on together, where every one of us has a role to play in making sure we keep our world healthy and thriving for years to come. Essentially, it emphasizes that growth and development should not compromise the health of our environment, and that it should be a continuous and inclusive process.

To help achieve this, the United Nations has outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of a global agenda to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. Climate action has been recognized as the most significant opportunity to advance the UN Goals and guide the global, regional and national development efforts of countries worldwide. Despite the challenges, many local governments have set more ambitious targets than their national counterparts, and an increasing number of cities are upping their commitment to delivering the SDGs by making positive, sustainable changes to combat the climate crisis at the local level.

Ready to dive deeper? Find out why climate action in cities is vital to sustainable development.

What is ESG reporting and why does it matter?

A concrete way to progress towards sustainability, and responsible business practices, is through ESG reporting. It is the process by which companies disclose information about their operations in relation to environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations. These reports typically detail a company’s initiatives related to reducing carbon emissions, promoting diversity and inclusion, ensuring ethical business practices, and addressing other sustainability concerns.

ESG reporting is a way for businesses to measure and communicate how their ESG initiatives stack up against industry benchmarks and targets. This type of reporting provides stakeholders, like investors and customers, with valuable insights that can influence decision-making and highlight potential opportunities and risks that might affect a company’s value.

Still curious? Read more to find out why ESG reporting really matters.

Basics of an environmental management system

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, sustainability is a strategic imperative. Enter the environmental management system (EMS), a powerful tool that revolutionizes how organizations navigate environmental challenges. An EMS is essentially a set of rules and tools that help a company keep track of and reduce the negative effects its activities might have on the environment – such as emissions, waste, resource consumption and biodiversity impacts.

But an EMS is more than just paperwork. It’s about fostering a culture of environmental stewardship within an organization. By establishing clear roles and responsibilities, promoting employee engagement and providing training on environmental best practice, an EMS empowers employees at all levels to contribute to sustainability efforts. It also helps companies stay compliant with environmental regulations and standards, reducing the risk of fines or legal issues while enhancing their reputation as responsible corporate citizens.

ISO 14001 is the gold standard for environmental management, helping organizations to be more environmentally responsible and fulfil their legal obligations. With benefits ranging from cost savings to enhanced public perception and reduced liabilities, this International Standard can help reshape the sustainability playbook for businesses worldwide.

Keen to learn more? Brush up on the basics of an environmental management system.

ISO standards and climate change

Addressing climate change is a multifaceted challenge, and ISO standards can play a pivotal role in shaping the global response. Offering a comprehensive framework, they empower organizations to effectively measure, manage and report their environmental impacts, facilitating the transition to a more sustainable future.

From ISO 14001 for environmental management to ISO 50001 for energy management, International Standards offer practical guidelines and best practices to tackle climate-related risks and promote sustainable development. By adhering to ISO standards, organizations can enhance their environmental performance, reduce carbon emissions and contribute to the global effort to combat climate change.

The adoption of ISO standards is a significant step towards sustainable business practices – in particular since all management system standards now incorporate climate change considerations. This reflects a collective commitment to a more sustainable and resilient world, where economic growth is balanced with environmental stewardship. Climate change is a challenge unprecedented in human history, and only by working together can we collectively ensure that the necessary action is taken for a sustainable future.