SA fiddles while the world burns

Not much to do with climate change is a surprise any more. The science has been settled for half a century. Most of the people alive today were born after we knew that burning fossil fuels would warm the planet and cause ecosystems to collapse. The only surprise left is how little companies and governments are doing to tackle this.

Two consecutive heat waves have made life unpleasant on the Highveld. Johannesburg lived in the mid-30s and Tshwane toyed with 40°C. This will be the everyday summer norm for our children — in a best-case scenario.

Last week’s temperatures are happening in a world that has warmed by 1°C since people started burning fossil fuels. To keep warming to a survivable limit, world governments agreed in Paris in 2015 to do what they can to ensure warming does not go higher than 2°C.

READ MORE: Earth faces climactic moment

That 2°C, as a rule of thumb, will be double in the African interior.

Two new reports say few big countries are doing much to keep warming to 2°C, so we are probably looking at global temperatures increasing by up to 5°C in the lifetime of children born this decade.

At that temperature, the current models that try to work out what will happen to the climate fail; too many ecosystems will start to unravel.

South Africa will be hit hard. Drought and flood cycles will be constant. Our neighbours will fare worse. But this country, instead of doing anything, is doing little to reduce its contribution to global warming, the research shows.

READ MORE: Two thirds of African cities face ‘extreme climate risk’

The first report, Warming Assessment of the Bottom-up Paris Agreement, published in the journal Nature Communications, looks at what countries are doing to tackle climate change, based on the real world and their nationally determined contributions. 

Every country submits these to the United Nations’s climate agency. Because the Paris Agreement isn’t legally binding, these contributions are meant to be improved every five years. It’s a shame system, which relies on countries wanting to be seen to be acting in good faith by their neighbours and trading partners.

It isn’t working. The report concludes that China, Russia and Canada are the worst global warming offenders. If every country acts in the way they do, the world would warm by 5.1°C this century.

South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are in the next-worst category. Everyone following their example would warm the world by at least 4.5°C.

This is worse than the levels of the United States (4°C warming) and the European Union (3.2°C). India is the best of the large countries; if everyone followed its example the world would warm by 2.6°C.

The reason South Africa ranks so poorly is explained by another report conducted by 14 organisations around the world, including the University of Cape Town. It says it is “the world’s most comprehensive review of G20 climate action”. The Brown to Green Report 2018 concludes that “none of the contribution targets for 2030 is in line with the Paris Agreement”.

South Africa’s power sector is by far the worst polluter of the G20 group of nations. It produces more than double the amount of carbon per unit of energy produced than the bloc’s average. Eskom’s coal power stations and diesel generators are 25% more polluting than the second-worst power sector, in Australia.

The report says that the three worst countries, South Africa, Australia and Indonesia, “have the highest emission intensity in the power sector and lack concrete actions to phase out coal”.

This might change. South Africa has a new energy blueprint, the Integrated Resource Plan 2018, which describes several scenarios for what kind of energy should be built. In the scenario the plan advocates, the country shuts down old coal-fired power plants and builds a grid that mixes solar, wind and gas power plants.

But this plan also includes two new, private power plants and that the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power plants continue to function at 100% capacity.

The plan would reduce the country’s carbon emissions, but not anywhere near enough to meet its Paris contribution.

The two private plants have been controversial and are being challenged in court. The energy department has said they are only being built to fulfil contracts.

The Brown to Green report says the private plants are not necessary for energy security, are not the most cost-efficient solution and will increase emissions.

Industrial efficiency is also targeted in the report. South Africa is one of the three worst countries for how much carbon companies produce to create a unit of gross domestic product. Oil and chemical producer Sasol

tops this list. Its own data shows that it produces three tonnes of carbon dioxide for each tonne of product it creates. Its 68-million tonnes of carbon each year are a quarter of South Africa’s emissions and more than the whole of Ireland.

At its annual general meeting last week, Sasol was grilled by shareholders. They asked what it is doing to tackle climate change, and what effect that change will have on its business. The company does not have a concrete target for either of these.

At best, such a target will be forced into existence by government legislation setting a cap on what companies can emit. This will come into effect in 2021, if it isn’t challenged by those companies. The last attempt by the environment department to force Sasol to improve its air quality ended after the company threatened legal action.

This, the two reports and continued pollution show the disconnect between how much of an impact the changing climate will have on South Africa, and how little the country is doing to reduce its own emissions.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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