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What is Climate Change?

The Earth's climate has always changed, and temperatures have risen and fallen over thousands of years. However, the term climate change is usually used to refer to the much faster rate of change which has been occurring over the past century as a result of human activity.

To understand climate change, it's important to recognise the difference between weather and climate.

Climate is the common, average weather conditions we expect over a long period of time (often 30 years or more). A long-term trend (change) in climate conditions is known as climate change.

Weather is the temperature, precipitation (rain, hail, sleet and snow) and wind we experience every day, which as we know in Scotland can change by the year, the month, the week, the hour and the minute.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia" (IPCC Fifth Assessment Report AR5), 2013. In the future this will be reflected both in the climate and the weather.

For more information the UK Met office have produced a very clear Climate Guide.

The council published its own pdf icon West Lothian Council Climate Change Strategy 2015-2020 [586kb] in November 2015, setting out how we plan to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Climate change laws and commitments

There are Scottish, UK and international laws and commitments driving the council's efforts in tackling climate change. These include:

Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. The Scottish Government's commitments to tackling climate change are set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009). This requires a minimum 42% cut in emissions by 2020 (including international aviation and shipping) and defines annual emission targets from 2010-2050. The commitments represent the most stringent reduction targets in the UK.

Plans and policies for meeting these targets are published in the Scottish Government's latest strategy.

Public Bodies Climate Change Duties: Putting Them Into Practice (new window). Guidance on the council's duties in delivering the requirements of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.

Scotland's Climate Change Declaration. A commitment made by Scotland's  local authorities to mitigate their impact on climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to predicted climate change impacts.

The Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme. A legally binding carbon emissions reduction scheme requiring the council to purchase allowances for carbon emissions resulting from its energy use.

Decision No 406/2009/EC of the European Parliament. This EU decision makes a firm independent commitment to achieve at least a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 across the European Community compared to 1990.

The Paris Agreement. An international agreement setting targets for countries across the world to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Some commonly used climate change terms...

Global warming doesn't mean we'll all have warmer weather in future. As the planet heats climate patterns change, with more extreme and unpredicted weather across the world. Many places will be hotter, some colder, some wetter and others drier.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is essential for all life on earth. It's absorbed by plants as they grow, and emitted by all life forms when they respire and when they die (or are burnt as fuel). It is the principal greenhouse gas produced by human activity.

Greenhouse gases (GHG) , including carbon gases like carbon dioxide and methane, are vital in the Earth's atmosphere in certain quantities because they help trap and retain some of the sun's heat (the 'greenhouse effect'). This makes life as we know it possible on Earth -without it the world would be mostly frozen. But too much is dangerous.

Carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted by an individual or organisation in a given period of time, or the amount of carbon emitted during the manufacture of a product.

Mitigation is action that will reduce man-made climate change. This includes action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or absorb greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Adaptation is action that helps cope with the effects of climate change. For example, the construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or moving over to crops which are capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.