Medway panorama

What climate change is

Climate change means a shift in the earth’s weather patterns and average temperatures caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are naturally occurring and support life on earth, however, over the last 150 years human activity has greatly contributed to increased levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Since the Industrial Revolution the balance of the carbon cycle has been changed due to human activity including burning huge amounts of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. The extra carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere traps more of the sun’s heat leading to a rise in global temperatures. In the last 100 years, we have already experienced a 1 degree celsius (°C) rise in average temperatures and scientists predict that the trend is set to continue at pace without considerable reductions in carbon emissions.

Watch video: Climate Change 101 with Bill Nye.

Why we all need to take action

In 2015, countries around the world signed the Paris Agreement (an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC) with the aim of cutting carbon emissions to keep global warming below 2 °C, while pursuing efforts to keep it below 1.5 °C.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report advising that global temperatures could increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels as soon as 2030 and would have a catastrophic impact on life on earth. The IPCC report found that for global warming to be limited to 1.5 °C, 'Global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.'

In a year that saw the end of the warmest decade ever recorded, global climate protests gained momentum in 2019 calling for governments and decision makers to take more action. The UK government also became the first major global economy to set a net zero carbon target for 2050.

COP26 outcome

In November 2021, the UK hosted and chaired the United Nations annual Climate Change Conference, COP26. COP stands for Conference of Parties and is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC.

Delegates from 197 countries around the world gathered to set out plans to cut emissions further and faster in the next decade, to ensure that temperatures don’t rise beyond 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.

The agreements made have been titled the Glasgow Climate Pact. The outcomes are:

  • originally, the Paris Agreement allowed nations to report back about their plans to cut emissions by 2030 every five years, to revise these plans. It was scheduled for 2025 to discuss plans beyond 2030. This has now been brought forward, and it is to be discussed at the next 2 COPs, in 2022 and 2023
  • a ‘phase down’ of coal-fired power generation. This is the first direct reference to fossil fuels at a COP since the Kyoto protocol in 1997
  • developed countries will financially support developing countries to adapt to climate change
  • reaffirmation of the target to prevent 1.5C rise in temperatures.

Read more about the outcomes of COP26.

The impact of climate change

Globally we are already experiencing the effects of climate change such as:

  • warmer temperatures
  • increased rainfall and flooding
  • an increase in storms.

More frequent and severe extreme weather is also predicted for the future, resulting in the following significant impacts:

  • hotter summers will lead to health and wellbeing risks, particularly for vulnerable people such as the elderly
  • an increase in storms and flood risks due to sea level rises and increasing intensity of rainfall
  • risk of water supply shortages due to droughts
  • high temperatures and flooding will also bring risks to transport infrastructure, and supplies and services. This in turn will affect property values and food prices, bring a risk of new and emerging pests and diseases, threaten species and natural habitats, increase infrastructure costs and place increasing demands on energy and healthcare.

Read more about the risks of climate change on the Climate Change Committee webpage.

Read more about climate change on GOV.UK.

Why not look at our recommended home learning resources for climate change, to learn together as a family.

Terms to know

The variety of living species on the Earth. This includes plants, animals, and bacteria.

Watch a video from the Natural History Museum on 'what is biodiversity'.

A carbon budget is a fixed limit on the total amount of carbon emissions that are allowed over a given time to keep global temperatures within a certain threshold. The UK government is the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets. A carbon budget places a restriction on the total amount of carbon emissions the UK can emit over a five-year period. Each carbon budget covers a 5-year period starting from 2008. The fourth carbon budget runs from 2023 to 2027.

Your carbon footprint is made up of all the emissions that are caused by you in a given time period (usually a year), either directly, such as driving, or indirectly, such as emissions caused by food miles.

Carbon locking refers to carbon that has been sequestered, so is seen to be ‘locked up’ and prevented from being released into the atmosphere. For example, a tree will sequester carbon throughout its lifetime, effectively locking up carbon.

If the tree is cut down but is used to make furniture, the carbon will stay locked within the wood. However, if burnt or if it decomposes, that locked up carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

The action or process of removing the equivalent carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as has been released.

The process by which soil, trees, grasses, plants and areas of saltmarsh and wetland store carbon.

Preparing for the impact of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage it can cause, or to benefit from opportunities that may arise.

Cutting or preventing carbon emissions.

The capacity of a system to absorb the stresses imposed by climate variability and climate change.

CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a term used to describe all greenhouse gases as a standard unit. For any type or quantity of greenhouse gas, it represents the amount of CO2 that would cause the same amount of global warming. CO2 is used as this is the most common greenhouse gas emitted by human activities.

All of the carbon emissions used in the making of a material, product or service.

A greenhouse gas is any gas in the atmosphere which absorbs and re-emits heat, keeping the planet’s atmosphere warmer than it would be.

Other than carbon dioxide (CO2) gases include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

The practice of making a misleading claim to make something appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Natural capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.

Net zero carbon (also known as carbon neutral) is the point at which carbon emissions in the atmosphere are balanced with carbon removal from the atmosphere.

Achieving net zero carbon means reducing carbon emissions to almost zero and then safely removing the equivalent amount of remaining emissions from the atmosphere, for example by rewilding or planting trees. Net zero carbon is different to 'zero carbon' which requires an activity to produce no carbon.

Watch a video from the National Grid: What is net zero

Energy that comes from naturally replaced resources, such as sunlight, wind and waves.

Direct emissions associated with combustion of fuels by a consumer, for example gas used for heating.

Indirect emissions from energy which is purchased elsewhere for example electricity. Although the carbon emissions result from an organisation’s activities, they occur at sources it does not own or control.

Includes all other indirect emissions that occur because of activity by a consumer, for example the products we buy. These emissions are harder to measure but can represent up to 80% of a local council's total emissions when considered in full. Scope 3 emissions reporting is relatively new, and methodologies are still emerging to allow for measurement in many areas.

To understand how Medway Council is responding to climate change, please see our Climate Change Action Plan and our What we’re doing page.

To find out what you could be doing, head to Your journey to net zero.

If you would like to organise a talk by the Climate Response Team to your School or organisation, please email climatechange@medway.gov.uk to enquire.