A United Nations report has found that infrastructure is responsible for about 79% of greenhouse gas emissions as well as 88% of all adaptation costs.
The study, by the United Nations Office for Project Services, the United Nations Environment Project and the University of Oxford, ahead of the UN’s 26th conference for climate change (COP26), looked at the influence of infrastructure on climate action across the energy, transport, water, solid waste, digital communication and construction sectors.
It also highlighted the critical role that infrastructure plays in supporting national development priorities and achieving the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
It noted that policymakers, despite recognising the need for action on climate change, faced difficulties when it came to understanding where resources should be allocated and which practical actions needed to be taken to maximise progress.
The energy, transport and buildings sectors are among the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, according to the report.
The digital communication sector has also been found to have the potential to become one of the biggest emitters. But digital communication could also offset emissions by decreasing the over-reliance on the transport and building sectors because more people work remotely and thus cut down on commuting.
The report found that at least 54% of future adaptation costs would come from the water sector. These costs would originate from hazard protection provided by the sector that can reduce risks from floods, sea level rise, storm surge events and other climate impacts.
In South Africa, the department of public works and infrastructure has the National Infrastructure Plan for 2050, which focuses on four network sectors for energy, freight transport, water and digital infrastructure.
These plans, which are to be implemented by 2022, should be in line with the National Development Plan, the country’s blueprint for achieving transformation and inclusive growth by 2030.
“Generally, infrastructure defines our climate from a legacy perspective [because] when these were conceptualised and built, not much attention was given to the impact of climate change whether in terms of mitigation or adaptation,” said Mbangi Nepfumbada, of the faculty of engineering and built environment at the University of Johannesburg.
With the energy sector being one of the biggest emitters, the National Infrastructure Plan seeks to have a “bolder” and less costly energy mix to reduce the country’s overreliance on coal by the year 2050, he said. This will be done by “dramatically” lifting the use of renewable energy, especially solar and wind energy. Besides promoting economic growth and social equity, the energy plan will also promote environmental sustainability through efforts to reduce pollution and water usage and mitigate the effects of climate change.
South Africa’s energy demand is projected to increase by 30% by 2050 and, according to the National Infrastructure Plan, installed generation will more than double from 53 gigawatts in 2018 to between 133GW and 174GW by 2050.
Nepfumbada said, “Key to note is that as a country we do not seem to be short of plans, strategies and to some degree policies. The question is, is it enough, or what do we need to do for it to be enough?”
He added that despite having advanced policies and legislative framework, implementation was a major problem.
The country was recently recognised for including health as one of the considerations in the Nationally Determined Commitments.
But, according to the environmental health campaigner at groundWork, Rico Euripidou, current plans in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) did not show that South Africa is committed to climate action.
“We cannot ignore that our most recent IRP still includes an allocation for 1 500GW of coal and that our department of minerals and energy, led by Minister Gwede Mantashe, is still touting fossil fuels in the form of Karpowership and gas, coal and oil exploration as our national endowment. This flies in the face of progressive political commitment to climate action,” said Euripidou.
To walk the talk at COP26, South Africa needs to cancel all new coal projects and avoid new gas infrastructure projects. “Gas is still a fossil fuel, with high greenhouse gas emissions all along the gas value chain, as well as high negative climate impacts that would move us further away from meeting national obligations. In its Net Zero by 2050 report released in July 2021, the International Energy Agency stated that to reach net zero by 2050, no new oil or gas fields can be developed … There is currently 25 000 megawatts worth of new gas-fired power projects for which licence or authorisation applications have been made.”
Euripidou said modelling showed that at least 4GW of renewable capacity a year for the rest of the decade was needed to meet emission reduction targets. This required a dramatic scaling up and accelerating the renewable energy build.