Understanding Radiative Forcing and its Impact on Climate Change

Radiative Forcing: breaking down the basics and why it's a term every responsible business traveller should have in their vocabulary.

Written by Cameron Kelly on 16 August, 2023

Introduction

Radiative Forcing is one of the terms every responsible business traveller should have in their vocabulary, especially given the 2023 updates to DEFRA factors that will impact every corporation using them for reporting. Thrust Carbon is here to equip our clients with knowledge about key climate concepts, so we’re breaking down three aspects of Radiative Forcing in this blog, and elaborating on what business travellers need to know in a second blog.

What is Radiative Forcing?

This gets technical for a minute. Stay with us… Radiative forcing is a scientific measure that helps us understand changes in the Earth’s climate system. It tells us how the amount of energy, in the form of radiation, that enters the Earth's atmosphere differs from the amount that leaves it. This energy comes from sunlight and leaves as heat. When more energy enters than leaves the Earth, the result is a warming effect - a situation that we're currently experiencing due to human activities. This imbalance of energy, or radiative forcing, can compel changes in the Earth's climate.

How have we (humans) contributed to the increase in Radiative Forcing?

Before the Industrial Revolution, radiative forcing was balanced, and the Earth's average temperature remained stable. However, human activities since the start of industrialization have dramatically upset this balance. Chief among these activities is the increased release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat that would otherwise escape the Earth, leading to a net increase in energy within our planet’s system - or positive radiative forcing.

This positive radiative forcing is the primary driver of the global warming we're experiencing today. While greenhouse gas emissions are the leading cause, other factors such as deforestation and the release of aerosols from industrial processes also play a role.

What does Radiative Forcing have to do with business travel?

Business travel, especially air travel, is a major contributor to radiative forcing. While CO2 emissions from fuel combustion are a primary concern, there are also significant non-CO2 impacts. These include the creation of contrails - the visible lines of cloud that form behind an aircraft in flight - which can contribute to warming by trapping additional heat in the atmosphere.

As Travel Managers, understanding the broader climate impacts of business travel decisions is becoming increasingly important. Even seemingly minor factors such as choice of airlines, types of aircraft, and time of travel can have an impact on radiative forcing.

Conclusion

Understanding radiative forcing is the first step towards recognizing the multifaceted impacts of business travel on our climate. It is through this comprehension that we can begin to make more informed, sustainable travel decisions.

In our next blog post, we'll delve deeper into the specifics of business travel's role in radiative forcing. We'll explore the impact of contrails, discuss the influence of various travel factors, and consider how Travel Managers can make decisions that favour both the business and the planet. Stay tuned!

This blog is one of a 3-part series on radiative forcing.

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