‘Fingerprints of climate change are everywhere’

One of South Africa’s leading climatologists is optimistic that next month’s United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, will deliver a strong pact on climate action.

“I still want to be positive and make a prediction that we will see, at the end of this meeting, the most powerful pact we’ve ever seen in terms of climate action,” said Francois Engelbrecht, professor of climatology at the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“It is quite clear that the host of the meeting — the UK — the US, South Korea, Japan and the EU will be making commitments of net zero emissions by 2050 and more or less halving their emissions by 2030,” said Engelbrecht, who is the lead author of working group one of assessment report six of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This alone would swing investments towards renewable energy, he said, adding: “The momentum of investment in renewables, I think after this COP, will be bigger than it has ever been.”

China’s recent policy announcement that it will not build new coal projects abroad represents a major policy shift ahead of the climate talks.

“We are all nervous to see to what extent the US and China will be able to collaborate on these key issues but I think, especially over the last few weeks, the outlook of some success at this important COP has become more positive,” Engelbrecht said at the recent launch of a report he authored, together with the late Bob Scholes, on the effects of climate change on Southern Africa during the 21st century. 

The report was commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights for the African Climate Alliance, groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action as part of its #CancelCoal campaign.

Engelbrecht said Southern Africa is a climate change hotspot, with the region already 2°C warmer than a century ago. Warming in the interior is occurring at about twice the global average rate. 

The region is particularly vulnerable because of its geographical location and socioeconomic state. Already warm and dry, it is projected to become even more so, and “has many demands on its institutions and finances in addition to climate change”, according to Engelbrecht.

There is no scientific doubt that the climate of the region is becoming warmer, the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is increasing and the sea level surrounding the continent is rising on the back of the global burning of fossil fuels and land transformation, according to the report.

The report describes how the climate will continue to change throughout the 21st century, “to a degree mostly determined by human actions and the policies that guide them”.

At 3°C of global warming, the collapse of key crops and the livestock sector are highly likely.

“That’s because the regional temperature increase is then in the order of 6°C,” Engelbrecht said. “Combined with heatwave impacts, just the heat stress on its own is enough to mean the collapse of these two critical sectors of our agriculture. Climate change is not something of the future, the fingerprints are all around us.”

Freshwater availability, already critically limited in Southern Africa, will be reduced because of decreasing rainfall and increasing evaporation and quality will also decrease in warmer, drier Southern Africa, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases, according to the report.

The likelihood of long droughts will also rise, while the number, intensity and duration of heatwaves will increase steeply. 

“The capacity to perform manual labour outdoors decreases dramatically as the occurrence of heat waves increases. 

“Human mortality increases, particularly in urban areas with inadequate housing, but may in some locations be offset by decreases in mortality as a result of fewer cold spells,” reads the report.

The risk of severe storms, including intense tropical cyclones and thunderstorms, will be higher with climate change in Southern Africa, with loss of life, injury and damage to infrastructure also rising.

Thousands of species, many occurring only in the region, are at increased risk of premature extinction because of human-caused climate change

“This loss has negative consequences for human wellbeing and the economy, as well as weakening the capacity to adapt to climate change,” the report said.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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