/ 19 August 2021

‘The future is closer than expected’

Cape Peninsula National Park, Cape Of Good Hope
Safety valves: Ecosystems such as the fynbos of the Western Cape absorb and slow down water and channel the runoff into streams and rivers. (Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

For a long time the effect of climate change has existed in the future and global efforts have mirrored this with long-term commitments to a fairly distant 2050, when there would hopefully be net-zero carbon to drive global warming. 

But advancements in scientific modelling and research into how greenhouse gases are driving climate change at a faster pace, mean that the future is much closer, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

The “red alert for humanity” is the first of three reports the global scientific network will release between now and next March, with the final report unpacking scenarios that countries and their people can adopt to try to avoid the worst. 

Most alarming in the first report’s findings is that changes to the climate are locked in and the likelihood of reaching 1.5°C of warming could be as soon as 2040, with negative implications for projections on drought.

That climate will change is certain, but “it’s up to us on whether we stay there or get worse”, said Christopher Trisos, a researcher at the Africa Climate Development Initiative.

“We need to hold temperature there for half of the century, but if we wait out this decade that opportunity will close.”

“The more we reduce [emissions] the more we stabilise the climate — if we emit a small amount more, nature can absorb that, but if we emit a lot more, the capacity of the natural ecosystem to absorb declines,” he added.

What climate change also means is that countries will need to renew their focus on adapting to a world that is 1.5°C warmer. South Africa has added this element of climate change diplomacy to its submission to the United Nations on the country’s plans to reduce emissions. 

Trisos, whose focus is on climate risk, highlighted how restoring South Africa’s unique ecosystems would be beneficial for adaptation. The country is endowed with wetlands, grasslands and savannahs. These ecosystems slow down and absorb water and indigenous plants provide runoff into water sources. 

This is evident in the Cape where fynbos provide water runoff into streams. But thicket, forest and fynbos biomes are at risk because of, among other things, poor land management, erosion and pollution

The Eastern Cape is home to the succulent spekboom species, which scientists have found can sequester more than four tonnes of carbon dioxide a hectare annually. This makes it “more effective than the Amazon rainforest at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere”, according to the Spekboom Project, an ongoing campaign to boost carbon sequestration through restoring the plant in its habitat. 

In the IPCC report, scientists also observed that nature’s natural ability to absorb carbon in the atmosphere is getting weaker. Global emissions have increased since the panel’s last landmark report eight years ago. 

A commonly proposed solution by some agencies in the global north is to boost absorption of the high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through forestation. 

But Trisos and other South African scientists have cautioned the government against forest expansion. 

“South Africa must be careful and differentiate between ecosystem restoration and invasive species growth. We must push to restore ecosystems with the right trees and the right plants in the right places, like indigenous species that build local adaptability,” Trisos said.

Restoration efforts are only a part of the immediate actions needed for the country to avoid contributing to climate change. 

“Africa cannot afford to depend on fossil fuels for its development any longer because it will experience the worst effects and lock economies into fossil fuels that become a risk in the future when the rest of the world has moved away from that,” said Trisos.

“There is also a huge obligation on developed countries to step up to their financial commitment of 100 billion US dollars a year to support developing and poor countries make this change.”

South Africa’s contribution to climate change is higher than the rest of Africa because it is accountable for half the continent’s emissions, mostly through the energy sector. Most of the electricity generated by the state-owned utility, Eskom, is coal-fired. 

Tunicia Philips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa