Endless global conferences with progressively weakening outcomes are lessening hope that global temperature increases can be reined in at 2C.
And companies, the biggest polluters, are doing little to help.
Although 2°C does not sound like much, try growing a fickle plant when your spring is 2°C warmer, or surviving a now extra-sweaty and sweltering summer day. And each tiny change leads to a chain reaction. It is, however, a change that humanity can just about survive. Anything beyond that and the supercomputers doing the modelling go into meltdown because too many things start unravelling.
To reach the 2°C number, the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere need to be capped at 450 parts per million (ppm) – double what they were before the Industrial Revolution kicked off. With this concentration they will still trap the sun’s rays in the atmosphere, but at a survivable rate.
The global agreements, from gatherings such as Cop17 in Durban last year, set 2030 as the latest date that this should happen. Otherwise, what is being called the “age of weird” – in which once abnormal environmental catastrophes become the norm – will move up another notch.
But there is little political and business will to force the necessary change. Rohitesh Dhawan, a resource economist at auditing firm KPMG, said: “We just don’t seem to have the appetite to develop policies and create the economic climate that will get us there.” And any reasoning that is happening is panicked and short-term, mirroring the handling of the global economic crisis. “The key difference, however, is that nature does not give bailouts,” Dhawan said.
In its own analysis for 2030, British Petroleum predicts a 28% increase in global carbon emissions, driven by increasing fossil fuel consumption. They are already the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the greatest pollutant of the atmosphere. “This leaves the world well above the required emissions path to stabilise the concentration of greenhouse gases at 450ppm,” it said. Even with a big increase in political and business commitments, “the path is elusive”.
A similar perspective given by PricewaterhouseCoopers came to the same conclusion. Based on the thoughts of the world’s biggest power utilities, including Eskom, it said fossil fuels would still provide 57% of the world’s energy by 2030. The official target of the International Energy Agency is 41% by 2035. “Projections fall significantly short of the adjustments needed to limit global warming to an average two degree increase. This will drive temperatures towards 3.5°C,” the report said.
At this temperature the effects become exponential: ice melts, ocean levels and temperatures rise as their currents change course, changing rainfall patterns and seasons in turn, and crops fail. And this is only in one system. The cause célèbre has been the possible melting of permafrost, which could release high levels of methane gas. Being a heavy-hitting greenhouse gas, it traps more of the sun’s rays and heats the planet much more rapidly than carbon dioxide.
South Africa is committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 35% by 2020. To get there it has introduced the national climate change response policy. In launching it, Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs, said: “Climate change is already a measurable reality and, along with other developing countries, South Africa is especially vulnerable to its impacts.”
Richard Worthington, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s climate change programme, said South Africa’s chances of meetings its promises were “very much in play” and only in time would its success or failure become clear. With the national climate change response white paper and moves by the treasury to implement a carbon tax next year, government and business had to get serious motivation and reasons to adapt, he said.
Bleak reports by companies about the impossibility of reaching targets showed “an utter lack of appreciation of either the consequences of their actions, or the options they have for more responsible energy development pathways,” he added. But even if the 450ppm target was exceeded, “we should still endeavour to get back to this level”.
For now, South Africa’s progress is negative. Melita Steele, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, said: “South Africa’s emissions are actually on a sharp upward trajectory because of the irresponsible new investments in coal.”
As the twelfth-largest carbon emitter in the world this meant the country was not doing its part, she said, which was strange given that Africa would be the worst affected continent as temperatures crept up.
“We all face a grave and uncertain future,” Worthington said.