‘New alerts highlight need for urgent climate change action’

Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page
Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page

Published in Business Day, 19 September 2013

PERHAPS, one day, an article on climate change will be written that tells us that things are getting better. Sadly, this is not that article and that day, if it ever comes, is a long way in the future. Though climate change has largely disappeared from the public agenda in South Africa since the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban in December 2011, the problem itself remains stubbornly immune to fluctuations in media attention.

Two recent climate-change updates from the World Bank and International Energy Agency have restated the scale and dangers of the problem. The reports should make anyone younger than 50 worry about the future, because, on present emissions trends, significant effects are predicted in just the next 30 years. Some of the worst effects will hit sub-Saharan Africa.

There are a few points to bear in mind when either contemplating or skipping in dread past the predictions. First, global carbon emissions are still growing and show no sign of slowing down. Second, there is a lag in the climate system between the time of emissions and the appearance of the full warming effects from those emissions. At the moment, the earth has warmed 0.8°C. It is already showing many early signs of unwanted change, such as unusual droughts, wildfires and flooding in many places.

Even if all emissions stopped tomorrow, the earth is still pretty much guaranteed to warm up by 1.5°C above 1900 levels.

The “safe” limit for global warming is, by an international scientific and political consensus that far transcends doubts expressed at times in this newspaper, agreed to be 2°C. On current trends, we will, in the next 13 years most likely lock in the likelihood of that unwanted 2°C of warming.

Alarmingly, the 2°C limit is a political simplification based on six-year-old climate science. Some recent research suggests that it may be too much, and that a lower target would be safer. In other words, we may already have emitted ourselves very close to the realm of dangerous climate change. (We can, however, stop things getting worse.)

International negotiations have repeatedly failed to agree on decisive action. Despite our government’s cheery spin, COP-17 was arguably a spectacular collective heads-in-the-sand moment that postponed serious action till the end of this decade.

So, here’s the World Bank’s gloomy assessment of what our driving, flying, winter heating, overconsumption, meat eating and timber purchasing is doing to our future, and even more so to the futures of our children and grandchildren.

The funder of the giant Medupi climate change-generating power station tells us that if the world warms by 2°C, a point that may be reached in 20-30 years’ time, we should expect widespread food shortages, unprecedented heat waves and more intense cyclones in sub-Saharan Africa. Weather extremes will batter Africa’s growing informal settlements, harming people who have had little hand in raising the earth’s temperature.

If our emissions effectively complete the “purchase” of 2°C of warming by 2025, delivery of the actual temperature increase could follow as soon as 2035-2045. The relatively cheap, dirty, subsidised electricity we supply to BHP Billiton’s smelters is, by 2035, not an investment in our future economic development, but in extensive food shortages, heat waves and stronger cyclones.

We are also emitting a possible 40% of our maize lands out of existence and, if we ramp things up further to 3°C of warming, we could reduce the proportion of grazing land in sub-Saharan Africa from 25% to 14% of all land. Water availability in many regions is likely to drop 20% in the event of 2°C of warming. With warming of 1.2°C-1.9°C, possible as soon as 2050, the proportion of the population that is undernourished could rise 25%-90%.

That is probably not going to hit you, the middle-class or wealthy reader of Business Day, but barring some spectacular reversal of our enormous levels of inequality, it will hit the families of your employees and domestic workers and many of the people you pass in taxis, and perhaps create a sea of migrants from the faster-growing populations of the ever hungrier nations to our north.

So what do we need to do to avoid this future, globally and in South Africa?

The International Energy Agency report — Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map — has four clear and urgent suggestions. First, comprehensive energy efficiency measures could account for 49% of the emissions savings needed to avert the 2°C scenario.

“Energy efficiency speaks for itself as a win-win solution for the economy and environment. We agree it is a major opportunity and this is a key element of our climate change strategy,” says Steven Lennon, group executive for sustainability at Eskom.

Second, says the International Energy Agency, construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants must be limited. Fortunately, given their scale, Eskom’s newest coal-fired plants are at least designed to be efficient.

“Medupi and Kusile are both supercritical high-efficiency plants and even higher-efficiency technologies are being researched by ourselves,” says Lennon.

According to Andrew Marquard of the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, “there are very inefficient old coal-powered plants — municipal, and the demothballed ones — which could be shut down when we get over our power crisis”.

The third suggestion from the International Energy Agency is minimising methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production. There is relatively little scope for this in South Africa, as giant emitters such as Sasol are not planning significant changes to their business models. Sasol does have a climate change response strategy that will somewhat slow down the damage it is doing. But it is not a strategy that will stop the damage, particularly not if the company’s core business continues to grow.

While gas is often sold as being more climate-friendly than coal, a growing body of research suggests that is not always the case, when upstream leaks and other inefficiencies are taken into account.

If the Karoo gas reserves lined up for fracking exist and are profitable, they will probably be as damaging to the climate as their coal equivalent.

The International Energy Agency’s last suggestion is to accelerate the phase-out of subsidies to fossil-fuel consumption. These are market-distorting measures with a range of unwanted effects, such as making the transition to renewable energy more difficult than it should be.

But there is little scope for this measure in South Africa. “There are no direct subsidies in South Africa,” says Marquard. “There are a few indirect ones — government ‘loans’ to Eskom and, in the future, the declaration of coal as a ‘strategic resource’ will in effect keep the coal price lower than it should be.”

The International Energy Agency concludes: “While global action is not yet sufficient to limit the global temperature rise to 2°C, this target still remains technically feasible, although it will be extremely challenging. To keep open a realistic chance of meeting the 2°C target, intensive action is required before 2020….”

Given the extent to which we are probably going to be affected by climate change, some intensive action, both from South Africa and our international partners, is rather a good idea. Climate change will be very bad for business.


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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