Mar 27

Climate Change – Doomed Destiny or Realistic Optimism

An article by Ian Kilbride

I am an optimist by nature, but a pragmatic one. I have learnt that optimism grows from achievement and pessimism from failure to act. So, when confronted with the latest alarming report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), I take heart from the fact that we are now on top of the data, that the causes, trends and projections are clear, and that it is within our collective power to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, this cannot be achieved without extraordinary and unprecedented collective action by humankind on a scale never achieved before.

The latest IPCC report makes for sober reading and its key findings could not be clearer. On current trajectories we are heading towards a global increase in temperature of above 1,5˚C with severe consequences for the planet. Remembering that in 2015 all nations agreed to adopt measures to keep global warming below 2,0˚C and ideally to 1,5˚C, we are clearly missing agreed targets for reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2030, 2040, 2050 and 2070. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the strain this has placed on energy supplies, (particularly natural gas) has been an unwelcome distraction and deviation from agreed pathways to lower carbon emissions, resulting as it has in an increased reliance on coal as a dirty energy source.

The main findings of the latest IPCC report are as follows. Human-caused climate change is already affecting weather patterns globally, resulting in widespread damage and loss. This loss and damage will be most felt by the poorest and most vulnerable populations, particularly in Africa – our own continent. Greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 43% by 2030 and 60% by 2035 for us to have any chance of keeping to the 1,5˚ target. And yet, climate finance for mitigation and adaptation combined is still less than that for fossil fuels.

Enter the optimist. The IPCC affirms that “The solutions are out there to reduce emissions by at least 43% over the next seven years”. There have been miraculous breakthroughs in renewables, in which solar and wind are now the cheapest source of power in countries representing 90% of electricity generation. On a smaller scale, but one close to the heart of this particular petrolhead, electric vehicles are projected to reach price parity with internal combustion engines in the next two to three years. The challenge now is to achieve these technological breakthroughs and innovations in ‘hard to abate’ sectors of industry and long-haul transport. The military too has a huge GHG footprint and remains a final frontier for climate mitigation. Food production and consumption is another area requiring a serious and urgent rethink.

But to return to areas for optimism, the new job generative capacity of a ‘green transition’ is enormous. Globally, 24 million jobs will be created through green economy transitions and while others, such as coal mining, will suffer, we still have plenty of opportunity to achieve a just energy transition. Indeed, some 1,2 billion jobs in the farming, fishing, forestry and tourism sectors rely directly on a healthy and stable environment. In fact, the alternative to a green transition is that at current estimates, the impact of unmitigated climate change could shrink global GDP by up to 18% in the next thirty years.

One factor holding back a green transition will be local and national political interests, be they in South Africa, China, the US, or India in particular. And while South Africa is struggling to come to grips with its structural energy crisis, this also presents a unique, once in a lifetime, opportunity to change our energy mix, to wean the country off its toxic and failed dependence on coal and to ensure a healthy and sustainable future. This opportunity has been boosted by the massive funding pledged to South Africa by the international community to assist in its green transition. It is an opportunity we must not squander.

The clock is ticking. The IPCC now warns that we have just seven years to 2030 to keep the 1,5˚ within range. Apocryphally, the IPCC states, “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” When reading this I reflected less on my own future, but rather on that of my children and their children. As distasteful as some of Greta Thunberg’s outbursts are, the sense of outrage at the climate emergency legacy previous generations have bequeathed to the next generation is completely justified. It is a universal scandal.

How dare we not do something about this now and at least try and provide a liveable future for our kids? As the well-worn saying goes, “To Know and Not To Act is Not To Know”!

Ian Kilbride is the Chairman and CEO of The Spirit Group and an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch Business School