Greening the Future 2017: How you can save the world

Dead sea: Dead fish in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Rio de Janeiro after oxygen levels dropped due to pollution in 2013. Scenes like these  will continue without concerted action. (Photo: Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Dead sea: Dead fish in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Rio de Janeiro after oxygen levels dropped due to pollution in 2013. Scenes like these will continue without concerted action. (Photo: Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Last year was the hottest in recorded history. Sceptics of global warming point to the impact of El Niño. But the warming has not stopped with the dissipation of that phenomenon; Nasa data shows that this February was the second-hottest ever recorded.
The hottest was last year, a dubious accolade it took from 2015.

The fingerprints of human activity are all over this accelerated warming trend. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have passed 400 parts per million. Ice core samples show that that is a level that has never been breached in the 800 000-odd years that humans have been wandering the planet. Most of that carbon is there because, in the last two centuries, humans have linked economic growth to the growth of pollution-producing industrial facilities.

In an effort to do something about that, nearly 200 governments signed up to the Convention on Climate Change Paris Agreement in 2015. This tasked nations with doing all that they can to keep average global warming below 2°C.

February was 1.1°C hotter than average. The world is already halfway to a level of warming that the UN’s climate body — the Framework Convention on Climate Change — says will be “severe, pervasive and irreversible”.

Warming has doubled in Africa’s interior, in areas such as South Africa’s highveld. There, higher temperatures will mean more droughts and crops baking in the ground. There’ll also be more days of extreme heat, where temperatures soar above 40°C. Along the coast, 2°C will still mean rising sea levels nibbling away at cities such as Durban and Cape Town, while storm surges will threaten homes further inland with sudden destruction.

But South Africa is not pulling its weight when it comes to tackling its own carbon emissions, even in the face of such dangerous warming. Per person, South Africans are in the top 20 highest carbon emitters in the world. This country is responsible for half of the emissions of the whole continent. Medupi, once completed, will release more carbon than the whole of Kenya.

Our country’s plan to lower emissions — the nationally determined contribution submitted as part of the Paris Agreement — has been heavily criticised by nongovernmental groups. Carbon Tracker, a group which crunches the numbers on each plan, ranks South Africa’s plan as “inadequate”. This is because: “If most other countries were to follow South Africa’s approach, global warming would exceed 3°C to 4°C.” The plan allows the country to actually increase its emissions by 50% by 2030, before decreasing them by mid-century.

And, in implementing this goal, government has little in the way of policy instruments. Legislation to tackle carbon emissions from factories is still being promulgated, in the face of successful blocking from business and various government departments. Where legislation has attempted to lower emissions of other dangerous gases, such as sulphur and dust particles, companies have successfully applied for postponements in complying with the law.

The most important policy instrument to lower emissions — the proposed carbon tax — has been stuck with Treasury for half a decade. No date has been set for its promulgation.

While South Africa struggles to match action with its words, the situation is no prettier around the world. Donald Trump, the new president of the US, has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement and put his country back on a high-emissions path. Global emissions have stalled in the last year, but this is down to sluggish economies unable to recover from the 2008 financial crash.

That means that at a moment when the need to lower carbon emissions is at its greatest, not enough parties are pulling their weight. But there are signs that this is changing. Construction of new coal-fired power stations across the world was down by 62% last year, as renewable projects start making cheaper electricity. China’s energy regulator has halted plans to construct over 100 new coal-fired power stations. India’s coal imports dropped 25% towards the end of last year, and the country has said it will eliminate its coal dependency in the next few years.

In South Africa, the Integrated Power Producer Programme has built as much capacity as Medupi, in far less time. Dozens of wind and solar plants now supply carbon-free electricity to the grid. Over 300 electric vehicles plug into this grid, reducing carbon emissions. Industrial energy efficiency projects have saved millions of kilowatt-hours of electricity, while bylaws for new buildings mean many new homes provide for their own electric needs. Government projects are also yanking invasive trees out of rivers and resuscitating damaged ecosystems, allowing water to flow in riverbeds that have been dry for decades.

Civil society pressure is starting to add further impetus to this change in the status quo. A recent court precedent forced the environment department to look at the impact of a coal-fired power station’s carbon emissions before giving permission for construction to go ahead. Others cases are changing the way mines can do whatever they want, while entire communities work on recycling water and going off the grid. 

Things are both getting much worse, and incrementally better. The void left by the top structures of government ignoring their job is being filled by people who are working to make the world a better place. Where governments and corporations fail to lead, people can and are.

This is why this year’s Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Awards have picked the theme of “How you can save the world”. Never before has the need been so great for action, and never before have ordinary people had the tools to do something about it.


Entries for Greening the Future 2017 are now open!  You can enter here.

The M&G is looking for organisations and projects that are doing good work to find solutions in the following areas:

Energy efficiency and carbon management, Innovative climate financing, Youth leadership, Job creation for climate, Water efficiency and management, Women in climate, Innovation in construction, Species conservation, and Community conservation and resilience.

Sipho Kings

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