From the Industrial Revolution to Climate Change: What Happened and Why?

Coal, oil and natural gas have helped bring society from farms, villages and feudalism to the vibrancy of modern society. But we are now at a juncture in human development because of climate change. How did we go from the horse and plough to warming the entire planet? Why did this happen and what might it mean for the generations of people to follow? Read on to follow the climate change story from 1750 to 2100 and beyond.

The Industrial Revolution and Coal

As the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century gained momentum in the United Kingdom economists started to worry that coal mines would become depleted as the steel mills and steam engines consumed vast quantities of the resource. They argued for more efficient use of the coal that was available. But one economist, Stanley Jevons, showed that as resource use becomes more efficient, demand for the resource increases. This is because improved efficiency lowers the cost of using the resource and the service it provides, which in turn increases demand. His findings are referred to today as Jevons Paradox.

The paradox has always been true, but with the huge efficiency gains witnessed as fossil fuels were used to deliver energy services, the phenomena became very apparent for all to see. With just a handful of underpinning inventions, including coal fired furnaces, steam / combustion engines, electric motors, lightbulbs and more recently transistors, together with continuous efficiency improvements, society has been transformed from agricultural to digital industrial in under 250 years. That transformation has driven fossil fuel energy demand up by a factor of around 2,000 over the same time period.

Most economies have developed on the back of coal, oil, gas and minerals.  It was the use of coal that supported the rise of industry in Germany, Great Britain, the US and Australia and more recently in China, South Africa and now India.

Coal is a relatively easy resource to tap into and make use of. It requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, iron ore smelting and cement production. For both Great Britain and the US, coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy-to-access oil soon followed, and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

But the legacy, apart from a wealthy society, is a lock-in of the resource on which the society was built. So much infrastructure is constructed on the back of the resource that it becomes almost impossible to replace or do without, particularly if the resource is still providing value. As developing economies emerge, they continue to look at resources such as coal, in part because of the lack of cost-effective comprehensive alternatives.

Uncovering climate change

But the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas to deliver energy for society also results in the emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In July 1912 in Australia, the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal published a short article on the global use of coal.


The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

This story had its roots in the late 19th century work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist who linked the average surface temperature of the Earth to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Arrhenius was building on the 1859 work of John Tyndall, who had shown that carbon dioxide and other gases interfere with infra-red radiation, which is emitted by the earth in response to its heating by the sun. The surface temperature establishes the state of the climate, which includes where it rains and how much rain there is, where there is drought, the extent of glaciers in high mountains and polar regions, the way in which storms form, the sea level and forest cover to name just a few. So, as the surface temperature changes the climate changes.

The impact of emissions on a given ecosystem, be it chemicals into water or carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, can be described in one of two ways.

  1. If the material being emitted remains in the environment for a short while before it breaks down, is deposited somewhere or leaves with the main flow through the system (e.g. river water), then the impact that it has is largely related to the rate at which it flows into that system at any given time. This is a flow problem and the rate at which the material is emitted on a daily, weekly or yearly basis is all-important.
  2. If the material is very slow to be removed and doesn’t break down, it will then tend to accumulate, and its impact will grow and grow. Even a very small discharge will eventually cause a problem. If the emission finally stops the problem may at least stop getting worse, but it won’t get any better until the material is removed, either through some natural process or by intervention. This is a stock problem and the key determinant here is the total amount of emissions over time. The instantaneous rate of emissions is far less important.


Looking at the carbon dioxide emissions problem, imagine the earth’s surface consisting of three parts.

  1. The geosphere goes down from the surface to a depth of several kilometres, where some four trillion tonnes (at least) of carbon is stored as coal, oil and natural gas. There is also an enormous quantity of limestone, a carbonate.
  2. The biosphere is primarily the land where carbon exists in trees, plants, soil and living things.
  3. The ocean / atmosphere system is where carbon exists as carbon dioxide either dissolved in the ocean or as a trace gas in the atmosphere.

Over time, a carbon equilibrium has been established between these systems, with the level in the atmosphere plateauing for thousands of years at a time, despite the continuing transfer of carbon between the three parts. We also know that the surface temperature of the planet is related to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and Arrhenius had calculated that if atmospheric carbon dioxide were to double in concentration the global temperature would rise by some 5ºC, which in turn would lead to climate change.

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does fluctuate, but always as a result of some physical change in the environment. For example, during the last ice age, the amount of solar energy reaching the planet dipped due to orbital variations of the earth around the sun and, consequently, the ocean / atmosphere system cooled. This allowed the amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean to increase and therefore the atmospheric carbon dioxide level dropped. That drop resulted in further cooling, causing the system to shift until a new equilibrium was reached. Given the size of the system and the very slow rate at which the equilibrium shifts, these changes would typically take tens of thousands of years.

Until now. Three types of human activity are resulting in a rapid shift in carbon, disturbing the equilibrium; our use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, our use of limestone to make cement and land use change, resulting in stored carbon from the geosphere and biosphere being released into the ocean / atmosphere system.

The available removal mechanism is very slow – thus carbon dioxide is accumulating in the ocean / atmosphere system at a much faster rate than it is being removed. The difference is several orders of magnitude when compared to its return to the geosphere through processes such as weathering and ocean sedimentation. This situation is akin to the stock problem described earlier.  What really matters and therefore where the focus needs to be is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide released over time from geological sources and land use change.

Over the entire industrial era, some 2.3 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide have been released to the atmosphere. About half was dissolved relatively quickly in the ocean or absorbed into the land-based biosphere, while the remainder stayed in the atmosphere. As a result, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from 275 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 to 415 ppm globally now. The rate at which the concentration is rising is also rising, moving from 1 ppm per year in 1960 to nearly 3 ppm per year. This process is shifting the carbon equilibrium that has existed since the start of the current inter-glacial warm period (known as the Holocene). In turn, this will have an observable impact on other features of the same equilibrium, including the surface temperature of the planet, as described by Arrhenius. It is this process that is leading to climate change.

Greenhouse gases and climate change

Since the days of Arrhenius, a great deal of work has been done on the relationship between the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the resulting temperature change. More recently, the focus has been on how much the temperature will rise for a given cumulative release of carbon dioxide over time. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the carbon dioxide released to the end of 2017 had raised the average surface temperature by about 1.1°C and that the addition of as little as 420 billion tonnes (Gt) of further carbon dioxide, could push this to 1.5°C of warming. In 2015 the nations of the world established the Paris Agreement in which they have pledged to work together to limit warming to 1.5°C by rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But if current emissions of some 40 Gt of carbon dioxide per year continue unchanged, the 420 Gt threshold will be exceeded by 2030.

Thinking about climate change as a stock problem rather than a flow problem changes the nature of the solution and the approach. The stock perspective means that a truly comprehensive international treaty on climate change needs to consider the point at which carbon dioxide emissions reach zero, or net-zero, being a zero sum of emission sources and sinks. When net-zero emissions is reached, accumulation ceases and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stabilizes. Remarkably, the Paris Agreement does incorporate such a goal.

The climate change issue doesn’t begin and end with carbon dioxide; it is one of many greenhouse gases. The most prevalent is water vapour, but it changes dynamically with temperature and so reinforces the role that carbon dioxide plays in climate change. But several other greenhouse gases have become problematic over the last century as a result of human activity. Perhaps the most important of these is methane. The gas is different from carbon dioxide because it presents us with more of a flow problem than a stock problem due to its breakdown in the atmosphere. Methane is naturally emitted, but human activities have added to this. The largest anthropogenic sources are agricultural methane from belching cows as they digest food, rice paddies and fossil methane (natural gas) from fugitive sources in the global oil, gas and coal industry.

The impact of climate change

But how should we think about the impact of global warming and the consequent climate change? Many commentators now refer to the problem as a climate crisis but offer no frame of reference for consideration other than extreme weather events.

That framing should start by considering the entire Holocene period of some 10,000 years. After the relatively rapid temperature rise as the world exited the most recent glaciation, we have seen a long period of stable temperatures and stable sea level, during which human civilization has taken root and flourished. Humans have occupied most of the planet and established food production systems in the most fertile regions. We have built cities and ports for trade of goods and made use of the geography, such as rivers.

Over the last 5,000 years we have built a civilization that is perfectly optimised and fine-tuned against one set of conditions, namely the very stable conditions of the Holocene. That isn’t to say this is the only set of conditions that could have supported such development, although it may be the case that the conditions were close to perfect for our particular species. Importantly, the period has had very little disruption from other climate change events such as super-volcanoes.

Nevertheless, imagine if the Holocene warm period had been 2°C higher from the start as was the case for the Eemian, the previous interglacial period.

In a warmer Holocene sea levels could be some 10 metres higher than today and weather patterns would have emerged differently. It is quite possible that humans could have flourished during such a period, but the world would look different to the one we see today. We would have built and optimised society against that set of conditions instead of the ones we have experienced. Agricultural belts would be in different locations so settlements would have emerged differently, and our cities would not be where they are today owing to a combination of agriculture and sea level. National boundaries might have emerged differently.

So now we have a sudden shift in temperature of 2 to 3°C and we find that the civilization we have built is no longer best suited for the conditions. There is a mismatch between what we have and what we need to continue with 8 billion people developing into a state of living well. This may lead to a ‘great rearrangement’ of society, which could include migration, reorganisation of agriculture and the need to apply technology fixes to some cities or perhaps even abandon others. There may be shifts in conditions which could lead to desert where there is none today, or the emergence of wet areas which are currently dry, with certain weather events heralding the transformation. Weather events are symptoms, but the underlying shift, or climate change, is far more pervasive.

Can that world support 8 billion people? Populations may well decline in some areas and increase in others as habitable zones shift, but perhaps not to the extent anticipated because of our ability to apply technology to adapt. We are a very capable species, but climate change is certain to test our resourcefulness.

Written by David Hone

David Hone is a climate change adviser to 2041 Foundation and has over 40 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry. He is a board member of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and the International Emissions Trading Association.