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What’s the difference between global warming and climate change?


Find out the difference between global warming and climate change – and learn what we’re doing at Unilever and beyond to help tackle both.

The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are often used interchangeably. But though they share many similarities, they are slightly different things.

Understanding these subtle differences can help all of us plan the climate action we need to take in order to build a safer, more hospitable planet for the future.

Read on for definitions of both global warming and climate change – and to find out how we’re taking action within Unilever and across our value chain.

Understanding global warming

The term ‘global warming’ refers directly to the process of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising. The temperature of the Earth’s climate has always changed slightly, but in the past 50 years, and particularly the last 30, these changes have accelerated rapidly.

Why? It’s down to changes in a process commonly known as the greenhouse effect. Certain gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat from the Sun, making our home planet a comfortable place to live. But when excess amounts of these greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, temperatures begin to shift.

There is overwhelming evidence, including a 97% scientific consensus, that global warming is largely a man-made problem. Rising temperatures have been caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions accumulating in the atmosphere. These emissions have been created by a combination of factors, including the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, deforestation and agriculture.

The Paris Agreement is a collective global agreement, signed at COP21 in 2015, to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C, and ideally, to 1.5°C. But we are currently on track for a rise of 2.7°C. If this happens, it will probably cause the loss of the planet’s vital ice sheets, causing sea levels to rise.

We’ll also experience severe weather conditions, food and freshwater shortages, and resulting conflict and migration which will make the Earth increasingly inhospitable for all of us.

The definition of climate change

‘Climate change’ is the result of global warming. It refers to significant changes in the Earth’s climate system which can lead to extreme weather patterns, causing wildfires, desert expansions and rising sea levels.

Humans, as well as Earth’s animals and plant life, naturally rely on the climate to be able to survive. As the effects of climate change become more extreme, people will be at risk of severe and unpredictable weather changes, which could cause more frequent natural disasters like cyclones, flooding, droughts and heatwaves.

Many animals are also at significantly increased risk of extinction, which could disrupt our connected ecosystems. A lot of these concerns are starting to happen right now, and will only get worse unless we work together to prevent them.

What is the difference between climate change and global warming?

As shown above, global warming and climate change are different terms, though each shares the same uncertain results for the planet.

We think it makes sense to use the term ‘global warming’ to refer to the man-made causes of temperature change, like carbon emissions and deforestation.

Climate change should then be seen as the problems caused by this rise in temperature, like extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels.

The key similarity between these two terms is that both of them are man-made problems that we need to work collectively to prevent.

What is Unilever doing to address global warming and climate change?

Decarbonisation is one of the vital ways in which we can work towards preventing global warming and climate change in the future.

At Unilever, we’re working to decarbonise our business and remain on track to reduce our operational (Scope 1 and Scope 2) emissions by 100% by 2030 against a 2015 baseline, having already lowered them by 68%.

And we’re going beyond our own operations to address our Scope 3 emissions too – those across our value chain. Our targets include halving the emissions impact of our products per consumer use by 2030 against a 2010 baseline, and reaching net zero in our value chain by 2039. Decarbonisation is one of the vital ways in which we can work towards preventing global warming and climate change in the future.

No one business can reach net zero alone – which is why we’re working with others, through our Supplier Climate Programme and our Climate & Nature Fund, and calling for wider society to move on climate too.

We’re taking a stand on climate by calling for governments, businesses and partners to accelerate their climate action right now.

There’s a lot we need to do, but having these clear targets in place has helped us track progress and continue to work towards defined goals.

Businesses today, be they global, national or regional, should have a clearly defined climate action plan in place to help slow both global warming and climate change in the future. We believe that a net zero emissions world is within reach, and we all have a role to play, but it’s the responsibility of governments and companies to lead us there.

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