Avoiding an African climate change catastrophe

The people have spoken with their feet. On Sunday 600 000 people marched in 2 700 climate change protests around the world, demanding that their leaders do more to tackle global warming.

In New York 310 000 people marched in the largest climate change event in history, led by Ban Ki-moon, the general secretary of the United Nations. Over 40 000 marched in London and 30 000 in Melbourne. Several smaller rallies were held in South Africa.

Ban has called 125 world leaders to a Climate Summit on Tuesday – the largest gathering of heads of state at a climate change conference since 2009. Then – at the Congress of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen – people arrived with extreme hope, but left disillusioned. A weak and voluntary agreement was signed by large states to lower their carbon emissions. 

Since then there has been a perceptible drop in the energy of environmental groups, which has only picked up thanks to the Climate Summit.

A binding agreement on climate change needs to be signed next year, at COP 21 in Paris. This would force nations to lower their emissions, and would come into effect in 2020. But that is only 14 months away and Ban has called the Climate Summit to create “momentum” for these negotiations. “Three decades from now the world is going to be a very different place. How it looks depends on actions we take today,” he said.

He has asked that world leaders, and leaders from business and civil society, come to the summit and show their solutions for tackling climate change. Most importantly, he wants them to sit down and get on the same page. This would be the only way to “steer the world away from cataclysm and towards a sustainable future”, said Ban.

Cold targets
The UN has said its principal aim for climate negotiations is to ensure global temperatures do not increase by more than 2°C this century.

To achieve this, the total carbon in the atmosphere cannot exceed 3.2-trillion tonnes. This means that only 1.2-trillion tonnes can be safely emitted. At the current rate of emissions – without an increase in intensity – this would take 30 years. Last year human sources emitted 36-billion tonnes of carbon, and this year we will release 40-billion tonnes.

Africa’s official position is that temperatures cannot increase by more than 1.5°C, because it will be the continent worst affected by climate change. People in Africa are already struggling to survive because of poor soil quality and water scarcity.

The UN’s climate body – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – said in its report this year that climate change would act as a ­multiplier. Where there are already stresses, changes in the climate would exacerbate them. The normally cautious body warned that this would lead to wars.

To achieve a temperature increase of only 2°C, or 1.5°C, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be kept below 400 parts per million. This was the objective of climate negotiations in the early 2000s. Before the Industrial Revolution the figure was 250 parts per million. Last year we hit 400 parts per million, and have stayed consistently above that number. Now climate negotiations have set 450 parts per million as the maximum acceptable level.

Every year without progress leads to compromise, and a greater split between the pathway science recommends for humanity to survive climate change and what politicians are willing to accept.

Polarised positions
Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, said the Climate Summit is all about creating momentum so that no more compromises have to be made. Countries will not be making commitments – that they will need to do in March when they must say what they will do to tackle climate change.

But the meeting will hopefully show everyone’s hand and create a sense of urgency about the need to create a binding agreement to tackle climate change, she said.

The United States secretary of state, John Kerry, has said the meeting needs to create as much urgency about climate change as there currently is about tackling ebola and the Islamic State terrorists. But there are so many different positions to overcome.

The developing world refuses to accept any agreement that does not hold the developed world – Europe and the US – accountable for the damage caused by climate change happening now. These countries are developed because they burnt fossil fuels, so they should pay, goes the argument. This position is strongly held by island states, which are vanishing below rising sea levels. The island nation of Vanuatu has already started purchasing land in Fiji so it can begin moving its population.

But the developed world is broke. And its economies are being overtaken by others, such as China and India. This month China overtook the European Union in its per capita carbon emissions. China is responsible for 29% of all carbon emissions, the US for 15% and the EU for 10%. South Africa is responsible for less than 1%, although it ranks 13th in its per capita emissions.

Time is running out
In 2009, South Africa pledged to lower its carbon emissions by 42% by 2025. Its environmental legislation is the best in the world and its ambitions are extreme. But the reality of implementation for the environmental affairs department has seen climate issues often ignored by the rest of government.

Two of the world’s biggest coal-fired power stations are under construction at Medupi and Kusile and the country’s energy plans only include a 10% renewable component by 2030. This despite renewable energy now being the same cost as coal power, constantly increasing in efficiency, and now starting to become a base load energy source.

South Africa faces serious problems, thanks to climate change. Temperatures in the interior will increase by up to six degrees this century. Sea level rises will threaten major coastal cities and rainfall will decrease over most of the country and become unpredictable. Feeding people and giving them water is going to become a challenge.

This is all contained in the White Paper on Climate Change, which has largely been ignored. The only significant step towards action on climate change has been through the treasury saying there will be a carbon tax. But this has met with constant opposition from business.

And, thanks to the revolving door, business leaders regularly interchange positions with politicians. The position of business, therefore, ends up being the position of government. But delays are costly. Oxfam says that since the 2009 Copenhagen conference, 112 000 people have died globally because of “weather-related disasters”. The cost of the damage was $490-billion in that period.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data last week saying June, July and August this year were the warmest such months on record. The temperature in the deep oceans, where most of the world’s heat is stored, is the warmest on record. And this year is on track to be the hottest on record, surpassing the mark set in 2010.

Speaking at the end of the 310 000-strong march in New York, Ban said: “This is the planet where our subsequent generations will live. There is no Plan B because we do not have a Planet B.”

Today’s summit needs to reflect the energy that 600 000 people summoned on Sunday. Our leaders have 14 months to secure our future. If politicians do not sit down today and get on the same page, we will see global temperature steaming past 4°C this century. For Africa that is catastrophic.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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