Climate lessons from Africa

Africa has a unique opportunity to provide solutions for the global problem of climate change, says Professor Sir David King, former science adviser to the British government.

King would love to see high-tech, futuristic developments such as cities that are constructed in such a way that people can get anywhere they need to on foot or by bicycle. He also expressed a “real fondness” for airships — they can easily transport people and cargo and their powering costs are almost zero because they use helium as a lifting gas.

The development and use of airships could be pioneered by Africa, King said: “They could be the transportation equivalent of the mobile phone, and what it has done for communication in Africa.”

South African-born King, the founding director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, was speaking on the opening day of the 40th South African Chemical Institute Conference at Wits University, his alma mater, on Monday this week. King was the UK government’s chief scientific adviser under former prime minister Tony Blair, and is currently advising the Rwandan government on its climate change policy.

King warned that the global population will plateau at about nine billion people, “and we need to plan for that”.

“We are destroying the ecosystem with which we have co-evolved. The big question is, will human civilisation continue? We are facing the facing the biggest problem our civilisation has had to face up to.”

With nine billion people on the planet, he continued, we cannot afford to make mistakes like over-farming and polluting our environment. The solutions of ages past, like relocating an entire civilisation, are simply not available to us.

“We need to share the responsibility of looking after our common ecosystem,” said King. He advocates the use of “muscular multilateralism”, saying: “Countries need to encourage each other through competition. We can all lower emissions, for example, by competing with each other in protecting our environment.”

King was critical of climate change denialists, saying they need to “face up to the real world of science”. “They have no idea of the effort going into climate science; it literally makes me cringe,” he said.

Human beings first began to affect the temperature by clearing forests to make way for farmland, King said. Then the Industrial Revolution came along, when people began to burn large amounts of fossil fuel. This carbon, which had been naturally sequestered underground millions of years earlier, was now being returned to the atmosphere.

“The current level of carbon in the atmosphere is 387 parts per million, and it’s rising by two parts per million every year. This is our biggest problem,” he said.

The question now is whether the human race has enough sense to halt this destructive process. “Are we collectively going to be able to manage this situation?” asked King.

He warned that we will soon run out of scarce resources, like oil, and that the incessant demand will lead to accidents, as the technology needed to access difficult-to-reach oil reserves is pushed to its limit.

“It is my belief that the [US] war in Iraq was about oil, and getting a friendly regime in place to ensure the supply of oil.”

King called the $3-trillion spent on the war so far “a joke”, saying the entire US economy could have been defossilised – the process whereby industries and developments that are based on a carbon fuel source are converted to a more sustainable fuel source — for about a tenth of that amount.

“We are looking at the biggest challenge to the economy since the Industrial Revolution, but also the biggest opportunity for economic growth.”

We now need a “new Industrial Revolution” — with smart, green, advanced manufacturing based on sustainability. In this way the defossilising of economies will actually be a stimulus because the economies then become sustainable.

Among the barriers to this process are the idea that a consumer-driven economy is the only way to attain growth, and general inertia in technology and industry. “Inertia is the biggest challenge; we tend to stay with the solutions of the past instead of thinking up solutions for the future,” said King. “We need a change in our thinking.”

Another problem is national perceptions clashing with global priorities: the idea that a country’s gross domestic product is the only measure of its wealth. “We should be measuring a nation’s wealth in terms of its human capital, infrastructure capital, cultural capital and environmental capital,” said King.

In South Africa, for example, gold underground would be considered environmental capital. Once it’s been mined and sold, however, it is no longer part of the nation’s wealth, unless the money made from the sale is reinvested in the country’s human, cultural or infrastructure capital.

King used the examples of the decision to outlaw ozone-damaging CFCs and the state of California imposing emissions regulations on car manufacturers to illustrate that companies have the solution to problems within their grasp. In both cases the manufacturers worked hard to come up with a way to rectify the problems — and they did. “We need private sector involvement and government regulations to push the solutions into the marketplace,” he said.

In Africa, King would love to see high-tech, futuristic developments like cities which are constructed in such a way that people can get anywhere they need to on foot or by bicycle. He also expressed a “real fondness” for airships, the development and use of which could be pioneered by Africa. Airships can easily transport people and cargo, and by using helium as a lifting gas, the powering costs are practically zero.

“They could be the transportation equivalent of the mobile phone, and what it has done for communication in Africa.” But Africa is in dire need of good, solid scientific advice, because of the vulnerabilities the continent is exposed to.

“In terms of wealth creation in a sustainable way, the opportunities here are massive,” he said.
“This is the century of Africa, the time when African can produce that which it has always had the potential for,” he said. “There is a huge opportunity to leapfrog into the future, to learn from the mistakes made by the West. We can immediately see what the challenges of the 21st century are as the continent develops.”

“It’s very exciting to be working in Africa now,” King said.

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