/ 25 October 2019

The horror: Tales of climate change

Flash of the future: Global warming puts our food sources at risk. Droughts and floods will seriously hamper agriculture and many more of us will be getting food dropped from the sky
Flash of the future: Global warming puts our food sources at risk. Droughts and floods will seriously hamper agriculture and many more of us will be getting food dropped from the sky, like this woman in South Sudan. (Patrick Meinhardt/AFP)



Twelve years.

That was the warning last year — carbon emissions have to drop by 45% by 2030 if we are going to succeed in keeping global temperature increases to below 1.5 °C.

It doesn’t seem a big enough number to worry about.

So, last year, the United Nation’s climate agency — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — released a report that posed what is at stake. The report, Global Warming of 1.5 °C, was a rare occasion when scientists used alarming language to draw an image of what the world will look like if carbon emissions aren’t decreased.

These emissions come from vehicles, factories, power plants and cattle. They float up into the atmosphere and sit there, sometimes for decades, trapping heat and turning the planet into a giant greenhouse. The extra heat changes how the global climate works —from melting ice that raise sea levels to more intense thunderstorms on the highveld.

If average global temperatures increase by more than 1.5°C, the rate of change will become too much for a lot of the life on Earth to cope with. Ecosystems that humans rely on, such as bees for pollination which gives us food, start to fail.

The world has already warmed by about 1°C.

South Africa has largely ignored the UN science. In a letter to the UN last month — after the country was denied a speaking slot at a special climate summit because its plans to reduce emissions were not ambitious enough — President Cyril Ramaphosa promised large-scale reductions to be incorporated in the country’s new energy plan.

The Integrated Resource Plan was released last week. It ignored the science, and the warning that emissions need to drop 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. 

Independent analysis group, Climate Action Tracker, says that, if every country acted in the same way that South Africa does in regards to climate, the world would warm by nearly 4°C.

So, what will happen?

The UN report gave a few scenarios for what the future could be. None of them come with a happy ending. They are best described as horror tales that go from mild to catastrophic — with the worse ones becoming more probable with each passing year.

Scenario 1:
We save the day

Governments take climate change seriously. Electric vehicles replace petrol and diesel, industrial-scale plants capture carbon emissions, forests are planted, agricultural practices are changed to reduce greenhouse gases and produce more food. By 2100, the 1.5°C target has been met but not exceeded.

In South Africa, summer is hotter and rain falls in shorter and more violent bursts. But smarter cities protect people from heat waves, water is put at the heart of the economy and there’s enough to go around.

Heatwaves kill people in countries and cities that can’t afford to modernise. Coastal cities that can’t invest in seawalls will be eaten away by rising sea levels and violent storm surges.

Overall, matters get worse, particularly for poor people, who have less of a buffer for when things go wrong. For the middle class, life is comparable to what it was in 2020.

Life is nowhere near as bad as it could be.

Scenario 2:
The likely one

Countries don’t do much to tackle carbon emissions. Accelerated warming in the 2020s — as a result of natural increases and human-driven warming — leads to droughts, crop failures and fires. An emergency summit is held in 2025, where governments agree to actually do something. But the changes have to be much more dramatic than they would have been in 2018. This costs money. Renewables quickly replace other forms of energy but temperatures continue to rise. By 2040, coral reefs have all but vanished and tropical forests are shrinking. The ecosystems that protect many coastal communities from rising sea levels, such as mangrove forests, have disappeared and those people have to move inland.

The scale of transformation required means large tracts of farmland are turned over to biofuels. Food prices rise, “driving elevated levels of food insecurity, hunger and poverty”. Crop yields decline “significantly” in the tropics, leading to “prolonged famines in some African countries”. In response, people decide that food is more important than biodiversity.

Game reserves and wild areas are turned into farms and animal “extinction rates increase greatly”.

By 2100, warming is brought back to 1.5°C. The cost has been high and the world is now dominated by humans because of species reduction. Nation states are only just hanging on; “migration, forced displacement and loss of identity are extensive in some countries.

“The health and wellbeing of people generally decreases from 2020, while the levels of poverty and disadvantage increase significantly.”

Scenario 3:
The Trump-America path

Despite all their pledges, countries opt out of reducing carbon emissions. By the 2030s, a sequence of El Niño and La Niña kicks in. Major floods and heat waves hit every continent. Globally food production plummets and prices increase. Large ecosystems — coral reefs, wetlands and forests — are destroyed. Powerful hurricanes wipe out coastal cities.

“Poverty levels increase to a very large scale and incidence of starvation increases very significantly.” High levels of public unrest follow, “resulting in some countries becoming dysfunctional”.

Energy prices soar. Global average temperatures increase by 3°C. Young and old people die in heatwaves, and fires and floods wipe out food crops. South African cities are too hot to live in.

“The world as it was in 2020 is no longer recognisable, with decreased life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too-frequent heat waves and other climate extremes.”

Major conflicts take place. Progress in the sustainable development goals is undone. “Almost all ecosystems experience irreversible impacts, species extinction rates are high in all regions, forest fires escalate and biodiversity strongly decreases, resulting in extensive loss of ecosystem services.”

Life only get worse after 2100.