Never mind Copenhagen’s hyper-ambitious 1.5ºC upper limit to average global warming – that’s just never going to happen, given that we are already sitting at .9ºC and edging quickly towards 1ºC, with another 30-year CO2 time-lag still to kick in and which will certainly take us past the previous upper ‘safe’ or, more accurately, the ‘manageable’ upper limit target of 2ºC average warming. As anyone who has paid attention to the debate and the evolving science which is driving it, beyond 2ºC increase in average global temperature marks a point of no return – some argue convincingly we are already there – and into a rapidly escalating run-away situation wherein feedback loops such as increasing-towards-exponential releases of previously trapped methane adds greenhouse gas ‘rocket fuel’ to the warming mix.
This in turns sees 3ºC and then, rapidly, 4ºC come and go as we head inexorably into extinction-level climate change of 5-6ºC warmer. It’s not a pretty picture. While Simply Green has always tried to tell the ‘good greening news’, there is also no advantage in hiding one’s head in the sand and hoping the future is miraculously going to ‘turn out ok in the end’ when the future might in fact be our end, without a truly radical change to our current trajectory.
The PwC report doesn’t go so far, but it does say that country progress (towards CO2 targets) on average fall a long way short of the 6.3% reductions needed every year to limit warming to two degrees Celsius. South Africa’s results in the PwC Low Carbon Economy Index (LCEI) over the last eight years shows evidence of progress in transitioning to a less carbon-intensive economy as a result of a decrease in what is rated as ‘intensity’ since 2009. However, this progress stalled after an increase in ‘carbon intensity’, coupled with limited economic growth, from 2015 to 2016. There is therefore a clear imperative to focus efforts on long-term resilience planning to ensure that as a country South Africa will be ready to adapt to future climate change impacts, says the analysis. We trust PwC will forgive us for reporting that this is something of a statement of the obvious as the Western Cape grapples with a crippling drought that threatens to have some six million Cape metropolitan residents queuing up for containers of water from 200 distribution points around this urban concentration. Again, not a pretty picture. How, for one thing, will such an eventuality affect Cape Town’s and the Western Cape’s critical tourism industry?
Returning to the issue of carbon emissions, it is clear in the wake of COP23 that no more than two-thirds of targeted emissions levels are being achieved. Put another way, on average countries are putting out 50% more CO2 than agreed targets allow. This can have only one meaning: we are going to hit higher average temperature levels, both atmospheric and oceanic, much sooner than models have predicted. More energy in the planet’s system input on a more rapid basis can only lead to more and fiercer everything – so expect much wilder, weirder and unanticipated weather. We are already seeing this, but the numbers foretell an ongoing increase in intensity – and that is going to be for all sorts of weather events, from too much to too little rain, too much to too little sunshine, cold when it should be warm, very hot when it should be cold and so on, including, as we have already seen in the Atlantic and Pacific, many more hyper-intense storm events. The consequent disruptions to global food production and safety, as well as water distribution to a growing planetary population, are unknowable at present and therefore present dire risks that we need to be planning to mitigate right now – or we will certainly be reacting too late when the reality hits, as with the current Western Cape water crisis.
The inevitable knock-on effects of these geophysical impacts are going to reflect in economic, social and political instabilities affecting national, regional and global security and peace. A decade and a half ago Anita Roddick, Body Shop founder and activist-entrepreneur, predicted that the next great global conflict would be over water, not oil – and already there are regional manifestations of the accuracy of her prediction. This is not to say that many good things aren’t being done around the world, including in South Africa, all contributing to what progress there has been on reducing CO2 and other GHG emissions, thereby at the least delaying and slowing the impacts that are already foreseeable and beginning to manifest. The issue is whether what is being done is enough – and the answer seems plainly to be ‘no’. Also critical is whether goals set by nation states with good intentions are being met or likely to be met – and again, the answer is not universally but in the main ‘no’.
The LCEI – now in its 9th year – tracks G20 countries’ progress in reducing the ‘carbon intensity’ of their economy. Specifically, this refers to energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per million dollars of GDP. Countries at the bottom of the Index, including Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey and SA, all have emissions growth exceeding their GDP growth. Jayne Mammatt, Director of Sustainabilityand Climate Change at PwC, commented: ‘Since human-induced climate change is already well underway and mitigation levels are still too slow
to achieve the global goals of less than two degree average global warming, South Africa needs to shift more attention to implementation of adaptation measures that aid in building resilience.’ It is likely that SA will experience a combination of physical (extreme weather events), policy (for a low-carbon transition), markets and technology (emerging technologies and new business models)risks, she says. We agree, as do most experts, of which South Africa has an unusually large abundance contributing to international fora such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). SA’s Department of Environmental Affairs’ (DEA) National Adaptation Strategy identifies drought, flash-floods and veld fires as the climate scenarios which will worst affect South Africa. But coastal inundations and major destructive storm events cannot be ruled out either.
To be resilient, some fundamentals that South Africa therefore needs to have in place include an energy mix with a substantial quantity of energy derived from different renewable sources, a plan to ensure sustainable water supply during times of drought, the necessary firebreaks in place in high-risk fire areas (which these days is the entire country over the course of a single year), and adequate emergency services and disaster funds in place to react when natural disasters strike. A resilient country will also need to have the necessary measures in place to support sectors that are sensitive to climate change (agriculture) to adapt effectively, adds the analysis. Says Mammatt: ‘Many opportunities exist in South Africa to adapt to climate change. However, this requires more from all role-players within South Africa, as it forms an important part of achieving the interlinked Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’ The abiding question as COP23 fades into memory is whether there is enough will, political focus on the issues and money to do what is being said needs to be done. If you agree with the assessments already provided, then it must be clear that something extraordinary will be required – not eventually but immediately – to avert outcomes that will make our current political uncertainties seem like a minor spat on a kindergarten playground.