Climate Change and Sustainability


It is now universally recognised that human-induced climate change could have major adverse consequences for the world’s ecosystems and societies. Climate change is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, which trap long-wave radiation in the upper atmosphere and consequently raise atmospheric temperatures. This also produces other changes in the climate system. Carbon dioxide is the most important of these gases and its atmospheric concentration has increased exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution as a result of fossil fuel combustion and land-use change. In 1800, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was about 280 parts per million; today it is about 350 ppm and rising. Similar increases have been observed for other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Most ‘solutions’ to combating the effects of climate change usually focus on restricting emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. However, such policies intended to tackle climate change through restrictions on greenhouse gases are almost certainly not sustainable – they bear significant costs and have minimal impact on the climate and will most certainly bring about poverty, making it more difficult for the poor to adapt to climate change. Meanwhile, foreign aid to poorer countries targeted at technological adaptation is unlikely to do anything to prevent problems in the future and may even be counterproductive.

Indeed, attempting to control climate change through global regulation of emissions alone will not work or could be counterproductive. Sustainable development is the way forward and can only be led by government and come through the adoption of institutions which enable people to engage in activities that generate wealth and lead to technological progress and innovation.

This introduction explains what sustainable development is and considers the connections between climate change, poverty and vulnerability. It also looks at the linkages between climate change and other kinds of environmental change.

Unit authored by Mo Telford