/ 31 July 2020

Covid-19 puts green energy in a coma

Safrica Environment Health Pollution
Fired up: Despite the health and climate change hazards caused by energy from fossil fuels, South Africa still relies on coal from mines such as Schonland near eMalahleni in Mpumalanga. (Wikus De Wet/AFP)

The Earth is getting hotter. And, with promises to slow down global warming now on hold amid the Covid-19 crisis, the world continues on a destructive path despite the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions

Governments are mandated to keep global temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels this century and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

According to recent predictions by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the world is on the brink of reaching temperatures the Paris agreement had hoped to avoid. The study predicts that the global temperature is likely to be at least 1°C above pre-industrial levels in each of the coming five years. There is also a 20% chance that the Earth’s temperature will exceed the 1.5°C threshold in a year’s time.

The result of this could be disastrous: sea levels will rise, storms will rage, parts of the world will become much drier than before and conflicts over scarce resources are likely to intensify. 

A study by researchers at the University of Southampton shows that, at present rates of human emissions, there will be more carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by 2025 than at any time in the past 3.3-million years. The study, published in the journal Nature earlier this month, compares the current period of global warming to the last stage of the Pliocene epoch, between 3.6- and 2.6-million years ago. 

Quantifying carbon dioxide levels during this period will help in understanding how the Earth’s climate will react as global warming intensifies, the researchers say.

The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on efforts to tackle climate change has been twofold. 

The industrial and economic slowdown that accompanied lockdowns caused a significant, though temporary, drop in carbon emissions. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that, on April 7, daily global carbon emissions dropped 17%. 

The Covid-19 response has also upended global efforts to attend to the climate crisis. The United Nations climate summit that was to have taken place in Scotland has been postponed by more than a year to November 2021 because of international restrictions on travel. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which assesses efforts to curb climate change, has also been delayed because of disruption caused by the pandemic. The outputs by scientific institutions around the world are also likely to be affected. 

This year marks the first five-year milestone of the Paris Agreement and countries are expected to submit their long-term plans to radically reduce carbon emissions. But, just as countries are meant to show their ambition on tackling climate change, some are not honouring their commitments.

According to real-time data tracker energypolicytracker.org, G20 countries followed the same trajectory they were on before the pandemic. “Countries on a fossil fuel-intensive trajectory continued to follow this trend in their post-Covid-19 recovery and stimulus packages. In contrast, many countries that were already shifting to clean energy have capitalised on recovery packages.”

As part of the South African government’s efforts to cushion the blow of the Covid-19 economic crisis, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in April a three-month delay in first carbon tax payments. The implementation of the carbon tax, aimed at penalising large emitters of greenhouse gasses, has since been concluded.

On March 27 — the day the lockdown kicked in — the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, Barbara Creecy, lowered minimum air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide to reduce emissions by 58%. It was a compromise, achieved after public consultation. It took into account the financial situations of big polluters Eskom and Sasol, which were seen as unable to invest in infrastructure that would lower their emissions to standards called for by environmental organisations. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, stimulus directed at South Africa’s fossil fuel producers exceeds stimulus directed at clean energy. 

According to energypolicytracker.org, the government has allocated at least R5-billion to coal producers through the overpayment for coal contracts. There are four policies in favour of carbon emitters and only one allocating money to clean energy.

The majority of South Africa’s economic recovery plan is directed at providing support to the unemployed, grant beneficiaries and companies that have lost a portion of their income. It does little to attend to the climate crisis.

On the release of the WMO’s predictions, the organisation’s secretary general, Petteri Taalas, warned that improvements in emissions during Covid-19 lockdowns are “not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action”. 

“Due to the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the impact of the drop in emissions this year is not expected to lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric concentrations which are driving global temperature increases,” he said.

“While Covid-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, failure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems and economies for centuries. Governments should use the opportunity to embrace climate action as part of recovery programmes and ensure that we grow back better.” 

Though governments around the world have promised to try ward off climate catastrophe, the Covid-19 crisis has put a spanner in the works.