Cop-out stalls climate action
It was hailed as a victory. It had to be.
After running a day over schedule, climate negotiators in Poland last week agreed on a set of rules for how the 2015 Paris Agreement will work.
This Congress of Parties (COP) process is an all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach, with nearly 200 countries coming together to agree on how they can collectively reduce carbon emissions.
Fail and modern civilisation collapses.
Success means getting 200 countries to agree on something. This is rare, even when the fate of so many living things isn’t at stake. In 2015, governments agreed that everyone would do whatever they could to keep global warming below 2°C (the world has already warmed by 1°C). Each country submitted a plan for what they would do to lower emissions from 2020, their nationally determined contribution.
The rest wasn’t nailed down, from how you would know a country wasn’t lying about what it had done — and would do — to how exactly rich countries would support poorer countries to do things such as moving to renewable energy.
Poland was meant to be the place where these questions would be answered. There, last week, a rulebook was agreed on, saying how countries would account for their actions so they could trust each other. Because the Paris Agreement isn’t legally binding (except in countries where Parliaments make their contribution a legal target), the system is built on trust. That’s the only way to get every country in the world to sign up. There are no consequences for failure, or withdrawal.
So now there is a rulebook. But negotiators in Poland didn’t deal with any of the other issues and instead put them off until next year. Attempts by the majority of countries to add urgency to the process failed. Four countries — the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — blocked anything that would make the outcome of Poland a reflection of the growing science about the cost of waiting to reduce carbon emissions.
Poland started with a warning from Climate Action Tracker, a nongovernmental organisation that collates what every country is doing — the world is on track to warm by up to 4°C. If every country acted like South Africa, the world would warm by 4.5°C, it said.
That is a suicidal number. Research published in the journal Nature earlier this month said the numbers that governments are working with are too conservative. The United Nation climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calculates that the world will be 1.5°C hotter by 2040.
This makes it seem as if there is time to negotiate before action is taken. But the Nature report, “Global warming will happen faster than we think’’, says it will be 1.5°C hotter by 2030. That’s in just 11 years, less time than a child spends at school. The UN’s climate change body released a report two months ago that looks at the difference between a world that warms by 1.5°C and one that warms by 2°C. It said that countries had to do everything they could to stick to 1.5°C. More than this would change the world as we know it. Floods, fires and droughts would become normal and do widespread damage, and communities wouldn’t have a chance to recover.
To stay below 1.5°C, it said carbon emissions would need to drop by 45% by 2030 and then to zero in 2050.
The technology is there to do this. But South Africa and other countries are not exercising the political will to use it.
The recent Brown to Green report, by 14 global organisations, including the University of Cape Town, said that, of the G20 world’s biggest economies, South Africa’s power sector is the most polluting.
It produces double the amount of carbon per unit than the bloc’s average. Local industry is also in the bottom three in the G20 for how much carbon is produced to create a unit of gross domestic product.
Companies have also come out in support of reducing carbon emissions. Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, said last week that it will have zero emissions by 2050. A report from the Energy Transitions Commission, also out this month, on the six biggest sectors that contribute to carbon emissions, said these could reach zero by 2050 with little cost.
Homes, for example, would be 6% more expensive if the cement industry went to zero. This cost would be recouped by the energy saved by smart homes.
South Africa’s new energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan 2018, says emissions would dramatically drop if a mix of wind, solar and gas replaces most of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations.
The solutions exist. But the political will is not there.
South Africa 2040: It could be hell
If you have children today, they will be at university in 2040. You’ll be in your prime. What will South Africa look like in 21 years time? What world will we live in with our continued carbon emissions?
For South Africa, climate change is a story of water. The country is semi-arid. Rainfall patterns are already changing. The west will keep on getting drier. The east will continue getting wetter. Rain will come in violent spells — hail and downpours lasting a few minutes. Homes will be flooded and vegetation destroyed. We have cemented over natural systems, such as wetlands, which absorb this kind of rainfall, so flash floods will be normal. The rain will also crash into the earth, so it won’t replenish groundwater. Instead it will wash away precious topsoil.
Multiyear droughts will be even more frequent. The government will switch water from farming to people, because dams weren’t built as a result of corruption and nonpayment for water. So there won’t be enough water, even in good years. Thanks to broken sewerage systems, the level of sewage in rivers will be high. Children dying of diarrhoea and cholera will be an hourly reality. People will move to cities in search of clean water.
Rainfall will change so much that subsistence farming will collapse. Food prices will be high and farmers will struggle to produce. When there are droughts, fires or floods in the United States and Russia, imported food will be unaffordable. People will riot for bread.
The cities will be too hot and crowded. Plans to make more resilient cities, with better public transport and green areas, will be abandoned. Desperate to create jobs, the government will stop controlling air pollution from industry. Factories and dirty vehicles will spit gases into the air, forcing people to wear masks. Where sports do take place, they will be indoors, where the air can be purified.
Renewable energy will be the one thing that does work. But no factories and few jobs would have been created because unions clung to coal jobs. The opportunity to create a new economy will be missed. Energy demand will be down. In summer, on the highveld, it will be too hot to work. Heat waves, with temperatures reaching into the 40s and staying in the 30s at night, will kill the young and the old. That will drive automation, creating mass unemployment.
Pretoria won’t be the capital. The heat and drought will force the government to move to Cape Town. There, thanks to desalination, there will be enough water. But the rest of the province will be a desert. It will be too hot for wine and fruit farming. Warmer oceans will mean the cold fronts that brought winter rainfall will move too far south to bring rain.
A strongman will seize power, promising quick and easy solutions. Xenophobia will be entrenched. The Constitution will be eroded because rights won’t be assured and the state will ignore personal freedoms.
People will try to change things, but the natural world will not be able to support more economic activity. It will not be able to support a renewal. Things will just get worse.