Seven billion dreams, one planet

If we continue with business as usual, ecosystems will collapse and no longer be able to sustain life in its current form. This has happened many times before, but not in the age of human civilisation.

This is the dismal picture that people must face on June 5, World Environment Day, and it emerges from a wealth of research studies.

In just 200 years of burning fossil fuels, humans have managed to reverse the cooling trend the world had been going through. The past 10 years have all broken records, and 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. According to current Nasa estimates, the past two months are, on average, the hottest two ever recorded for this time of year.

This has driven usually calm scientists to speak with ever-increasing alarm. Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor of physics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a lead author for the United Nation’s climate body, said: “We are creating a very different planet, one that is way out of the entire experience of human civilisation.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collates climate research from around the world, warned last year that irreversible change is happening. This could lead to a world that would be 6°C warmer by the end of the century, it said, and the effects was already being felt in many parts of the world.

“African ecosystems are already being impacted by climate change, and future impacts are expected to be substantial.”

This will mean a 6°C increase in temperatures in South Africa by the middle of this century. The country has already seen a 0.8°C rise in the past century, with a resulting increase in rainfall uncertainty and crop failures.

“Africa as a whole is one of the most vulnerable continents due to its high exposure and low adaptive capacity,” the intergovernmental panel said. 

Even without the extreme effect climate change will have, the environment itself is in dire straits. The World Health Organisation said last year that 800 000 people a year die prematurely because of air pollution. A billion people go to bed hungry. Half the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water.

Much of the blame for pollution is put on the doorstep of large corporates, who externalise the costs of their operations. These are then borne by people in the vicinity, who pay more to treat conditions such as asthma, or have to buy water instead of using their own, now-polluted, water sources. 

The theme for June 5 takes cognisance of this shared environment – “Seven billion dreams. One planet. Consume with care.”

There are many people already doing this. But South Africa is a wasteful country, and companies such as Pickitup are dealing with landfill sites that are nearly full. People such as Mike Bobby show that there are other ways to use commodities and other ways to organise society.

In the international arena there are also signs that the current trajectory – which links gross domestic product and carbon emissions intimately – can be changed. Christina Figueres, the executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said last month that this would be the hardest task in human history. But the momentum was going the right way, she said.

In December every single country in the world will agree to a text at the climate change negotiations in Paris that puts the world on a trajectory to lower its carbon emissions. The end goal will be to have a carbon-neutral world economy by mid-century. 

If this happens then the next World Environment Day will be a markedly more optimistic affair.

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

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Lekwa municipality won’t answer questions about why children died in...

Three children are dead. More than a dozen homes have been gutted by fires in the past six months. And, as...

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.