Flying shame, meat shame, car shame and clothing shame. The burden of guilt is becoming heavier. And it’s easy to feel guilty about a lifestyle that increases emissions of carbon dioxide and damages the environment. But is it we ordinary folk who are the biggest climate villains? We asked five of our climate scientists to clarify some of the concepts around climate change and rising carbon dioxide emissions.
Alarming report after alarming report. Things have gone so far that the Members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg recently declared a climate emergency. But how bad is it really?
“Generally speaking, the situation feels rather dire, especially in view of the recent reports on the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that it now looks like we will exceed the two degree target,” says Hans Linderholm, professor in physical geography.
In its latest Climate Gap Report, the UN concluded that the countries of the world must multiply their efforts to reach their climate targets. In order to not exceed a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, emissions must be reduced more than twice as fast. Emissions must be reduced by 7.6 per cent per year instead of the current rate of increase of approximately 1.5 per cent per year.
The majority of the world’s scientists agree that the higher temperatures being experienced around the world are due to greenhouse gas emissions, where carbon dioxide emissions account for about three quarters of this global heating. Unlike methane for example, carbon dioxide has a long lifespan in the atmosphere. It is therefore a useful gauge of the current climate situation, and can point to a probable future development.
The statistics show that industry is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases, but transport also accounts for a big part.
“The fossil fuel industry and energy sector, as well as car and air travel, are the biggest emissions villains. But there are also two enormous industries that we tend to forget about: fashion and construction. Cheap items that can be purchased in stores or online and are often flown here from Asia. The construction industry is another major emissions villain due to the big carbon dioxide emissions involved in cement production,” says Céline Heuzé, associate senior lecturer in physical climatology.
In Sweden, individual industries account for nearly half of the emissions of carbon dioxide and around 37 per cent of all Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s important that these industries take their share of the responsibility and get support to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. These companies are often world leaders in their niches and can thereby also influence developments globally as good examples. So you need clear financial incentives,” says Mattias Hallquist, professor in atmospheric chemistry.
When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions per capita, Sweden is far from being the worst in the class. We have relatively low per capita emissions compared to many other countries, and for many years our emissions even decreased year on year. This can be explained by a transition to renewable energy and energy efficiencies, but also stagnating growth in industry.
But in recent years, that positive trend has slowed down and some years there has even been in increase in our emissions. The main reasons for this are the increased use of fossil fuels for electricity and heating and an increase in the production of diesel, cement and plastics. So the question is whether this is in fact a turn for the worst?
“Differences between individual years can be due to a variety of things. But unfortunately the trend over a number of years is that we must increase the pace of our transition. We have done a great deal with energy efficiencies and technological development but the difficult part is changing human behavior, for example by reducing our domestic transport,” says Mattias Hallquist.
It currently looks like the climate targets from the Paris Agreement of 2015 to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees will not be achieved. Instead global heating is threatening to be around 3 degrees if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate. According to the researchers, the consequences will be extreme weather events with storms, floods, drought and wildfires. Ecosystems and biodiversity will also come under threat. Animals and plants will be impacted and some may even be wiped out in large parts of the world.
In Sweden too, the climate will change dramatically, according to Mats Björkman, researcher in biochemistry.
“On the one hand as a result of long-term changes over time, such as changes in the alpine and subarctic parts of the country in the north, but also as a result of an increase in the number of extreme and intense weather events causing significant damage.
But the consequences will not be as great as in poorer parts of the world, he believes.
“Sweden is a very privileged country where extreme weather has less of an impact than in many other places. And above all, we have the economic, political and social prosperity to be able to cope with these events. Something that the majority of the world’s population does not have.
An increase in the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere with higher temperatures as a result also impacts our oceans with complications such as rising sea levels and changes in salinity. The Earth’s oceans and seas also act as a kind of buffer, absorbing roughly a quarter of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A side-effect of this is that the carbon dioxide reacts with the sea water making it more acidic.
“All of these factors combined with the usual stress factors such as other emissions and overfishing place enormous pressures on marine ecosystems, and this has direct consequences for us. Because without the oceans and seas, we would not be able to exist,” says Sam Dupont, researcher in marine ecology.
Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as fast as possible is absolutely the most important thing for stopping runaway climate change according to the five researchers.
“The transitions in the energy and transport sectors that we are seeing the beginnings of in Sweden for example must continue. This should also include greater efficiencies that reduce energy and transport needs,” says Mattias Hallquist.
“We must continue to lobby those in power at all levels, make sure that international agreements are made, learn from good examples and best practice, and invest in research into alternative energy sources. It is important to point out the dire consequences if global heating goes too far,” says Hans Linderholm, professor in physical geography.
But what about flight shame and meat shame and the power of the ordinary citizen to have an impact?
“If everyone individually gets involved, this will influence politicians and businesses. It’s very clear that individuals, such as Greta Thunberg, can have an enormous impact. Many countries see Sweden as a forerunner and so watch more carefully what happens here,” says Hans Linderholm.
“An ordinary citizen has a lot of power! Choosing not to buy meat, or not to fly but take the train instead sends a clear message. There is a lot of research which shows that we humans really like to fit in. So if your friends and neighbourgs see you doing something good for the planet, they will want to do the same. And ultimately, it’s the ordinary citizen in a democracy that can vote and stop work or school for the climate,” says researcher Céline Heuzé.
But the most important action is to stop up the holes in the hull of the ship that has begun to sink, Mats Björkman.
“The biggest thing we can do for our planet is to reduce emissions. If an oil tanker has sprung a leak, the most effective measure is to seal the holes where it is leaking – not catch the oil that has already leaked out. The same goes for our greenhouse gases. But you still need to clean up after yourself, deal with the oil that has already leaked out, by trying to bind the carbon dioxide we have already emitted for example,” he says.
Four questions to the researchers
What do you see as the situation for the climate right now?
Céline Heuzé, associate senior lecturer in physical climatology
“It looks bad but it’s not too late to act. To avoid the situation becoming too dramatic, we must limit global heating to 1.5°C. Today, the global temperature is 1.2°C higher than it was before industrialization began. And the increase is mainly due to the additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In Sweden, the most visible effect of this has been the big wildfires in 2018 as a result of a heat wave and drought.
“Carbon dioxide emissions per capita in Sweden are five times the maximum they ought to be to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. So there isn’t much to be proud of here either.”
What is the most important thing for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
Hans Linderholm, professor in physical geography
“Prioritizing alternative (fossil-free) energy sources and that we reduce the emissions that will stay around for a while and bring about changes in consumption behaviors. Effective measures can be implemented through policy, global agreements and that ordinary citizens become engaged.”
What are the main emissions villains?
Mats Björkman, researcher in Biochemistry
“I think it is irrelevant that make a list of the biggest villains. What the world needs is a complete transition to a more environment- and climate-neutral way of life. We need to stop passing the buck, blaming others for our shortcomings, for example by claiming that China is the main culprit and that this is where we should try to have an influence. We must first look to ourselves. We need to set a good example and if we can demonstrate that you can achieve this standard, China will also want to do the same.”
There is a lot of talk about flight shame and meat shame, but how much impact can an ordinary citizen really have?
Mattias Hallquist, professor in atmospheric science
“Citizens together can generate the kind of pressure needed for transitioning to more sustainable solutions. By influencing decision-makers – in politics but also in the business and industrial sectors, which you can do indirectly by flying less and eating less meat.”
Sam Dupont, researchers in marine ecology
“Every measure counts and everyone can contribute by adjusting their lifestyle to reduce their carbon footprint. The change will require strong policy measures, which means visionary politicians and citizens who are ready to accept the necessary changes. So becoming politically active and voting for the right people is crucial. You need to check what actually makes a difference and what is important and then act!”
Carbon dioxide emissions
In 2018, emissions of carbon dioxide from industry, electricity production and heating in Sweden amounted to 19.9 million tonnes, and from road traffic about 15 million tonnes.
Sweden’s emissions of greenhouse gases are among the lowest in the EU and the OECD. This is regardless of whether you count the emissions per person or emissions as a proportion of GDP. A key reason for this is that electricity generation in Sweden is completely dominated by CO2-free hydroelectric power and nuclear power.
Swedes on average emit 4.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That is already many times more than the maximum value if we want to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees. This can be compared with 5 tonnes for the French, just over 16 tonnes per person in the USA and close to 20 tonnes in Saudi Arabia. Chinese carbon dioxide emissions per capita are 8 tonnes, but in a comparison between countries of total carbon dioxide emissions per year, China tops the list.
The most concerning of the greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide but even methane, nitrous oxide and some other greenhouse gases affect the climate, although to a lesser extent. Methane from rice plantations, mining and livestock farming accounts for one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions (if water vapour is not included). But methane is not among the greenhouse gases that have a long lifespan in the atmosphere – its lifespan there is only around ten years.