Nov 08

Adapt or die from climate change!

Whereas Cape Town is emerging from a catastrophic drought, other parts of South Africa are now threatened. This article looks more closely at the United Nations panel on climate change and the ever-shrinking 12-year window we have to avoid a global catastrophe.


Written by Tim Hughes, Corporate Affairs Director, Warwick

We have been warned! First, former US Vice President Al Gore confronted the world with the inconvenient truth that the Earth was warming at such a pace that a 2 degree centigrade increase would bring about unprecedented climate change, leading to catastrophic disruptions in human existence, biodiversity and sustainability. Central to the graphic brilliance of Gore’s presentation was a controversial claim that, unlike previous waves of extreme warming and cooling, recent climate change is historically abnormal and can be ascribed in part to human factors such as industrialisation and in particular the impact of vast quantities of carbon emissions spewed out from developed and industrialising countries. Thus, recent global warming and climate change are anthropogenic in nature, they are man-made. Yet, while this anthropogenic feature is alarming, it contains within it a degree of hope.

If global warming is brought about by human behaviour, then the improvement of human behaviour holds the potential to reduce global warming and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The second major wake-up call was heralded in 2007 by the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comprising many of the world’s leading climatologists. Rather than simply pointing out the alarming truth of climate change, the IPCC Fourth Report contained results aimed at helping policy makers to take concrete steps. That anthropogenic climate change was occurring was no longer in serious doubt, the challenge now was to tackle, mediate and adapt.

This gave rise to a series of climate change summits (such as that held by South Africa in Durban in 2011), culminating in the historic Paris Climate Change agreement signed by 195 countries in 2015.

The third and arguably final warning has now been delivered. In 2015, the IPCC pulled together over 6,000 scientific reports from leading experts on climate change in order to craft the global picture. In October this year, they released their findings and a stark message. We have just 12 years (until 2030) to bring about the required emission changes to contain global warming to a manageable 1,5 centigrade increase. The major reason given for the 12 year window is the lead time required to build major infrastructural projects to mitigate the already inevitable impacts of climate change.  This is not enough however. The required changes are deep, profound and would require economic and social behavioural change with such rapidity that there is no precedent in history, resulting in a net zero carbon emission position by 2050. For example, by 2050, in the absence of other technology, cars propelled by the internal combustion engine would be relics confined to museums.

The threat to South Africa of climate change is particularly acute and indeed structural. Firstly, while post-industrial global warming has been measured at 0, 8 centigrade, southern Africa has warmed at twice this rate. By extension, if the IPCC is urging that global warming should be capped at 1, 5 centigrade by 2030, this will result in southern Africa warming by an alarming 3 degrees centigrade. In other words, we are geographically configured to warm at a factor of two times the global average.

The second structural challenge confronting South Africa is that, as a country, we are relatively energy scarce and yet carbon resource rich in the form of coal. This dichotomy of energy scarcity (no economic reserves of oil and limited reserves of natural gas) compared with an abundance of coal deposits, has resulted in the easy and yet climatically costly option of building two more massive coal-fired power stations in Medupi and Kusile.

Besides the construction, production and cost overruns making these two of the most expensive power stations of their kind globally, the economics of cost-recovery mean that as a country we are locked into a high carbon energy configuration for at least a further generation.

At the local level, our coastal cities such as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban are facing the threat of significant rises in sea levels, thereby threatening commercial, private and tourist property, global warming will result in significant changes in land use patterns across the country, particularly at a time when land reform is a key issue. In the agriculture sector, maize production a staple for millions, is highly climate sensitive and any disruption could leave vast swathes of our people food insecure.

Thus, the message is clear, and to echo the unwelcome words of a former apartheid leader, to avoid the ravages of climate change, South Africa has to adapt or die.