Carbon catastrophe is hurtling towards us

Just four years ago, in Paris, nearly 200 countries agreed to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement was supposed to be the defining moment in the fight against carbon emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm up the planet, causing changes in the climate.

Just last week, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere jumped to its highest level in three million years — 414.8 parts per million — and to the highest level in human history.

READ MORE: On climate change, a shift towards civil disobedience

The higher the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, the more effective it is at trapping heat. That heat is driving climate collapse around the world, resulting in ever-more damaging droughts, floods and other natural disasters.

The data on carbon concentrations comes from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, situated on top of a mountain on an island in Hawaii. It has been recording for more than six decades. Data from further back is taken from samples taken from ice, frozen thousands and even millions of years ago, as well as from rocks and trees.

Despite almost every country on Earth agreeing to do something, the rate of those carbon emissions going into the atmosphere is increasing. Scientists at the United Nations’ climate agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say that 450 parts per million is catastrophic. At this concentration, average temperatures around the world will jump by nearly 4°C.


Somewhere near 400 parts per million and a temperature rise of under 2°C is survivable. Before the Industrial Revolution kicked off, and human civilisation became bound to the burning of fossil fuels, that concentration was 250 parts per million.

READ MORE: Climate change claims its first mammal extinction

The UN climate agency released a hefty report late last year, looking at how bad global warming will be and what needs to be done to keep average temperature increases this century to 1.5°C. To achieve this, it said that global carbon emissions have to drop by 45% by 2030 — in only 11 years’ time — and to net zero by 2050.

An increasing number of countries have enshrined the zero by 2050 goal in legislation. None have gone for 45% by 2030, which means that the world will keep warming at dangerous levels.

South Africa has picked neither target. Even if the current draft version of the country’s energy plan is passed without political interference, the country will still be far away from zero carbon emissions in 2050.

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

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