Earth faces climactic moment
A UN report warns about the effect of global warming but says the tools exist to avert this fate
Twelve years — that’s how long we have to make fundamental changes to the way we do things. Fail and, by 2030, the world will be locked into the worst of climate change.
In Southern Africa, we have already had a taste of the worst. By 2040, nowhere will be safe. By the end of this century, life will be terrible for everyone.
This isn’t the dramatic language of journalism seeking sensationalism. It’s the conclusion of a major United Nations report on climate change, titled Global Warming of 1.5°C. It was put together by 91 scientists from 41 countries, looking at 6000 science reports and taking in 42000 public comments.
Their work is the result of a compromise reached during the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to which every country agreed to do what it could to keep average global warming below 2°C this century. The world has already warmed by 1°C since the Industrial Revolution.
As a rule of thumb, warming is double on the African continent. African countries and island states wanted the goal to be 1.5°C. Developed countries wouldn’t accept this, but they agreed to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change producing a report on what it would take to get to a 1.5°C goal — and what would happen if it was breached.
The 91 scientists (a handful are from South Africa) concluded that the world has to change at a scale with “no documented historical precedent” to stay within this goal. Greenhouse gases — which come from cars, power stations, fires, fridges, air conditioners, electrical insulation, deforestation and so much more — have to drop by 45% in 12 years and 100% by 2050.
Governments have kept delaying action (an agreement to tackle climate was almost signed in 1989). Put together, the current plans by all governments will mean the world will warm by 4°C this century. Children today will still be alive then.
The difference between 4°C and 1.5°C may seem small and the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C even smaller but in climate terms the difference is huge. South Africa is a semi-arid country and El Niño shows that it doesn’t take much to create drought and crop failure.
Generally, the country will get drier in the west and wetter in the east. Fynbos and succulent Karoo ecosystems will disappear under the expanding Kalahari desert. Cape Town won’t be safe from this shift. The Stellenbosch wine region will be too hot for grapes. People in Johannesburg and Pretoria will have to live through summer days that regularly reach the 40s.
Higher temperatures will mean more fires that release more CO2 and burn down forests. When it does rain, it will come in violent storms and with hail, which will wipe out crops. Food will become more expensive.
But there is a whole load of hope in the Global Warming of 1.5°C report. Enormous change must take place but the technology and plans exist to make it happen. All these changes, such as shutting down coalfired power stations and moving to green energy and electric vehicles, will reduce carbon emissions and, with less pollution, make life better for people.
With each fraction of a degree being so important, individual action will make a difference.
The klaxon has been sounded. It’s now in our hands.